07:09, July 06 160 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-06 07:09:11
Legal challenge over 'discriminatory' skirts-only policy at school

The mother of a seven-year-old girl who cried every day because she was forced to wear a skirt to school is hoping to bring a legal challenge against the government’s uniform guidance, which she says is leading to discrimination.

Every morning for nearly three years Roberta Borsotti wiped the tears from her daughter’s face as she railed against her school’s strict no-trousers policy for girls, asking repeatedly: “If boys and teachers can wear trousers, why can’t I?”

After threatening legal action, Borsotti finally convinced her daughter’s school, a Catholic primary in south-west London, to alter its uniform policy. Now she’s taking legal action against the Department for Education because she says she does not want other children to suffer in the way her daughter has.

Although there have been legal challenges on school uniform policies against individual schools, it is the first time such a challenge has been brought against the government, whose guidance is described by some lawyers as “defective” and “not fit for purpose”.

“In my opinion, the school acted in that way because it lacked proper guidance,” said Borsotti, a mother of three. “It cost me and my family, my daughter in particular, years of distress and frustration.

“I do not wish for any child or their families to suffer the same and it is my aim that no one again will have to go through what my daughter went through, whether they want to wear trousers or skirts.”

Borsotti and her family are now crowdsourcing funding to bring a judicial review against the government. Their legal action will be watched closely by parents and schools across England where school uniform has become an increasingly fraught issue.

Enforcement of uniform policies has become more rigorous in recent years with pupils frequently sent home for failing to comply with the strict dress codes favoured by many schools, in particular academies, who are independent of local authorities.

Growing awareness about transgender pupils has also led to changes to uniform policies. This week it emerged that at least 40 secondary schools have banned skirts for girls and have introduced a policy of smart trousers for all.

At Phillips High School in Bury, pupils have begun a petition against a trousers-only policy for new pupils from September and all pupils from the following year. “We feel more confident wearing a skirt and school trousers are unflattering,” the petition reads.

“Self-esteem issues are on the rise among teenagers, so making us unable to wear clothes we feel our best in will damage our mental health, and in turn our school performance.”

Transgender campaigners meanwhile have rejected the trousers-for-all approach and argued that all pupils should be able to choose between a skirt or trousers, as they are at Brighton College, a private day and boarding school which has scrapped distinctions between boys’ and girls’ uniforms.

Elly Barnes, chief executive of Educate and Celebrate, which works to help schools to become LGBT+ friendly, said: “What we always advocate is that students have a choice. We want any child at any school to be free to wear what they feel most comfortable in.”

Borsotti’s case is that the Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for a public authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of the student’s sex. Yet because of a lack of clarity in the government guidance, she says girls are still being forced to wear a skirt or a dress in many schools which amounts to discrimination.

“Uniform policies for girls do not have to be about trousers versus skirts,” she said. “The uniform policies should give girls equality in uniform choice and clearly state their right to wear what they are most comfortable with.

“Skirts or trousers are both perfectly acceptable. Business women wear trousers, female politicians wear them. There’s nothing immoral about trousers. I don’t understand why it needs to be such a big issue in schools.”

The DfE says it is up to individual schools to decide on uniform policy; its role is to offer guidance to help schools understand how the Equality Act affects them and how to fulfil their duties under the act on a variety of matters ncluding on the issue of uniform.

Lawyers argue however that the guidance fails to make clear that inflexible school uniform policies that do not allow girls to wear trousers or shorts like their male counterparts, or which enforce trousers-only rules on girls are unlawful and they think the government should clarify its advice.

Borsotti’s daughter is now much happier going to school – in shorts during the summer and trousers in the winter. Her mother says she never felt like herself in a skirt. When it was finally announced that girls could wear trousers, she rushed home, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut up her school dress into tiny pieces.

“She now says she feels less worried about running around,” said Borsotti. “Before she was thinking more about what she was doing because the dress might get caught in something. She feels more free now.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Decisions about school uniform are made at a local level by school leaders, who are best placed to ensure these policies meet the needs of their pupils.

“To support school leaders, the department issues best practice guidance. We back schools to take these decisions, but we would expect them to consult parents and pupils and ensure their policies comply with equalities law.”

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