The Wrong Trousers: Has a Bristol school got its sex education priorities on backwards?

g_logo_smA Bristol secondary school recently sent a letter to parents of female students regarding school uniform. The letter explains that in the last few months “an increasing number of parents” have been purchasing “tight fitting leggings/trousers or jeans” for their daughters. It then asks for the support of parents in purchasing “what the school considers to be appropriate trousers” and included an illustration (see below), indicating which trouser profiles were right and which wrong . Evidently, at least two out of five trouser profiles are now deemed to be the wrong trousers.


The school in question has a uniform for both boys and girls (black trousers and white sweatshirt tops), and it is no surprise that teenage pupils are continually trying to subvert the uniform rules and express their individuality with a bit of trendy difference. I remember aged fourteen tying my school tie into the thinnest or fattest of knots depending on what was cool and getting the odd reprimand for not adhering to expected standards of smartness. Whatever you ask to teenagers to wear, they will do their best to subvert it; when you are young, full of creative energy and want to either fit in or assert your independence, that is what you do.

But perhaps there is more to the letter than concerns about girls pushing the boundaries on school uniforms. The giveaway may be that the letter gives no reason why “tight fitting” clothes for teenage girls might be inappropriate. I cannot think that the school would be so coy if the reason was Health & Safety. So it is likely to be the “s” word – and not just “sex”, but more specifically the growing panic among adults about the so-called “sexualisation” of teenage girls. But you have to wonder how such letters and their injunctions help teenage girls or their parents when they don’t explain a school’s concerns about girls dressing in ways considered inappropriately sexual. Surely the education of teenagers should be about inculcating good ethics and enabling right choices. But instead we have a letter to parents that relies on inference. This hardly seems to be in line with the Government’s aim to “create an honest and open culture around sex and relationships” as recently outlined by the Department of Health. Yet given that the latest changes to the UK school science curriculum are to omit any reference to genitalia, puberty or sexual health, perhaps we should not be surprised. Rather than offer parents and their children the chance to question a school uniform decision that touches on adult anxieties about teenage sexuality, this school fails to offer an explanation that might open a debate. Perhaps the same thought process is behind current Government thinking about the place of sex and relationship education in the curriculum.

But a debate about so-called sexualisation is pressing. Not because it is a national problem, but because it isn’t. As Danielle Egan points out in her new book, Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualisation of Girls, we are witnessing another spin of the age-old whirligig of adult anxiety about the sexual corruption of children, particularly teenage girls. This time round girls are at risk from culture (sexualized media and loose sexual morals), people (paedophiles and celebrities) and products (thongs, magazines and, in Bristol, tight fitting leggings and trousers). Allow a young woman to wear inappropriate leg wear to school, and the next stop is promiscuity and pole dancing. Thanks to the school’s fashion vigilance, Bristol’s young women may now have a better chance of avoiding these risks.

Yet all the evidence indicates that young people of both sexes are in less danger of being corrupted by their trousers, or any other part of their clothing, than ever before. Teenage pregnancies are down and falling1, girls aged between 16-19 are the most likely group to use a condom during first sex2, and of the approximately 40% of 16 year old girls engaging in some sort of sexual activity, 60% were doing it with someone with whom they are in a relationship3. Frankly, their sexual behaviour looks a lot more responsible than that of mature men and women in their 40s and 50s, who now have rapidly increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections. The relative maturity of teenage girls was demonstrated in an interview this week on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Two young women, aged 15 and 16, talked eloquently about their online promotion of feminism and equality though TwitterYouthFeministArmy ( Rather than innocents at risk of corrupting sexualisation, these two young women were ready to engage critically with the complex influences that affect their sexual maturation and make personal and political choices about where they stand. As Danielle Egan’s book makes clear, when you start talking to young people about the sexual culture they live in, you get a different picture from what is often imagined by adults.

So if schools want to help young people make mature decisions about the complex issues of fashion, sex and self-expression, their resources might be better spent organising a school debate about the issue. If you are going to set a rule about school uniform based on adult concerns about sexualisation, you might as well ask the kids if they think those fears are justified. That at least might have some educational impact. But sending out letters that impose school uniform rules based on adult anxieties not borne out by evidence is only going to get one teenage response – Whatever! In this instance, it would be justified.

  1. FPA (2010)
  2. Mercer, C H et al. (2008). “Who has sex with whom? Characteristics of heterosexual partnerships in a national probability survey and implications for STI risk”, International Journal of Epidemiology 38.1, 1-9.
  3. Hatherall, B et al. (2005). The Choreography of Condom Use, University of Southampton, Centre for Sexual Health Research.
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25 Responses to The Wrong Trousers: Has a Bristol school got its sex education priorities on backwards?

  1. Dan Puzey says:

    I’m not sure I can tell the difference between #1 and #5 anyway…!

    • Kayley Winterson says:

      It’s the belt! The Head confirmed this yesterday… After he took eyeryone shopping for the appropriate school trousers.

  2. chelsie says:

    It’s wrong to ruin our education just because of the clothes we wear. If this is such a big deal this rule should of been made up before we entered the school. This isn’t ruining our education the schools our by sending us home!!

  3. lisamarie says:

    I agree wid this because its not really effecting our learning or anythink,if u walk round school there’s girls wearing. Skirts that are above there nees and there tighter than the trousers so they should complain about that then the skl trousers,boys are more likely to look at there bum in skirts so sort it out pathetic people

  4. bryony says:

    I think its really pathetic that they want us to change are trousers because there’s isn’t any difference between them and if they wanted us to change are are trousers they should of said when we started the school no now!

  5. Unknown says:

    The difference between #1 and #5 is the belt. I don’t believe it’s anything to do with the ‘S word’, but more to do with expectations and standards. If this is the college’s policy then it needs to be adhered to.

    • I wrote this piece to encourage discussion of adult expectations of what teenage girls should be wearing. It is intended to be a contribution to the debate regarding whether adult anxieties about the sexualisation of young adults, which are frequently repeated in the media, are justified by evidence or a simply a product of adult imaginations.

      In this case, in the absence of any explanation to the contrary, e.g. health and safety, I think it fair to assume that the school in question deems certain types of girls’ trousers inappropriately sexual in their fit and cut. As such, the letter may well be an example of the unfounded adult anxieties detailed in Danielle Egan’s book, which I would recommend to anyone working in education with young adults.

      • David Turner says:

        Hi There, bit late for a reply I know. But just a thought. I assumed that the concern about sexualising our children commonly refereed to Parents being pressured by retail outlets to buy padded bras for prepubescent girls or the kind of clothing reserved for young women out on the town. so I think parents should be concerned and it is indeed a real worry. Don’t care what teenagers wear that is just a normal journey to adult hood, not only pushing boundaries but becoming sexually aware. Besides as adults we have to conform to many dress codes whilst at work or a job interview so it stand to reason that school should implement a dress code. Oh how I miss being young and challenging.

    • Kayley Winterson says:

      Expectations and standards? I do not understand how anyone can say a school has expectations or standards when I have been at this school for nearly 5 years and the expectation of appropriate school trousers has never been mentioned before. I would understand policing year 10s buts year 11s. But how is this going to help any student achieve 5 A*-C grades?

    • Kayley Winterson says:

      If it is college policy, why did nothing happen today? Why were students allowed to walk around with these “tight fitting leggings/trousers” that were deemed inappropriate yesterday? I walked around in my “wrong” trousers all day and not once did any member of staff acknowledge my trousers. If this is a college policy the rules should be enforced every day of the week. The application of this policy seems very inconsistent.

  6. Anon. says:

    I find it cheeky how they take students to Mataland and buys the students trousers, just because they’re on free school meals. We’re in this uniform for 6 hours a day 5 days a week, we want to wear something we are all comfortable in, not wear something that make our legs look like tree trunks, as if that school doesn’t do well towards bullying, this will make things 10 times worse.

    • Kayley Winterson says:

      Very true. Also the cheap material they were trying to purchase for us could have led to other problems, e.g. thrush infection. In my opinion you should not wear £6 pound trousers in 20C heat.

  7. unknown says:

    like 2 months ago they sent over 100 people home for wrong trousers or one person got sent home for having a white tick on their black shoes……

  8. Abi Price says:

    The school is taking this too far. Fair enough if it were see through leggings, but that is the only thing that shouldn’t be aloud

  9. Dominic Weir says:

    I think that it’s entirely reasonable: the same styles of trousers should apply to boys and girls. It’s just a matter of uniform!

    • Kayley Winterson says:

      Yes, boys and girls! But the school is only applying this rule to girls. There are plenty of boys who walk around in skinny jeans and nothing is mentioned to them.

      • Dominic Weir says:

        I think that the issue is that only girls wear these sorts of trousers. But boys do break other uniform rules and they’re just focussing on this sort of thing at the moment. I do agree in fairness and gender equality , everyone breaking the rules should be punished equally!

  10. Unknown says:

    I was told to purchase a new skirt as the one I am currently wearing is ‘distracting male teachers’. Why am I the one being told to change my clothing? Shouldn’t the teachers be spoken to about their inappropriate attitudes towards female students’ choice of clothing within the school? People should be educated on HOW to think during their time in the education system, not how to dress accordingly to suit adult’s anxiety. This is effectively helping induce ‘rape culture’ and telling men that it’s okay to make women feel uncomfortable because of the clothes they are wearing.

  11. cora meakins says:

    Teachers should be more focused on the students education than what they are wearing. Sending students home for the wrong uniform is stopping them from getting the revision that they need in school.

  12. grace green says:

    It is unfair for girls to be told what to wear when boys are not even being checked over for the uniform that they are wearing.

  13. shane williams says:

    i agree with cora. Everyone is failing at a subject or more because the teachers are too busy sending students home. It is pathetic!

  14. Anon. says:

    Personally, I believe that the year 11’s leaving in a few weeks shouldn’t be forced to go out and buy new school trousers because it’s only a matter of time before we leave, but if we don’t wear ‘suitable’ trousers we get sent home, which is very important due to the fact we have exams coming up. The school may have a completely understandable uniform code. But what I fail to understand is why it’s okay for girls to wear skirts that expose their bum cheeks, while people who wear tight fitting jeans/ leggings get sent home? It seems the school would happily ‘ruin’ our education by sending us home, which is just as arrogant as the people who agree that jeans are appropriate.

  15. Jessica Clark says:

    This is the best thing I’ve ever seen. I can safely say I’ve been wearing Jeans for just over 2 years, maybe even 3, and things have been said before but never taken to this extreme. It’s ridiculous. With the see-through leggings and extremely short skirts I can completely understand because it’s not very pleasant, but with “tight” trousers and jeans, I don’t really see the problem. It does look better on the school if everyone is in the correct uniform but I think they should have set this out for the new year in September. Doing it a few weeks before we leave (or a couple of months for years 7-10) is quite stupid. People are still growing, especially at the ages we are and buying new trousers now to have to buy more in late August/September is silly and it shouldn’t be enforced for the sake of 2 months. Enforce it for September, when it really matters, because right now it’s quite pointless.
    Rant over. 🙂

  16. Lewis Frampton says:

    What has trousers got to do with education? By taking children to Matalan and sending them home they are missing valuable learning time. This makes no sense. The children wear there trousers 5 days a week everyday of the school year so surely they need to be wearing trousers they are comfortable in. As long as they are black sensible trousers I cannot see the problem. So why hasn’t the school explained the reasons behind there new trouser policy?

  17. Kayley Winterson says:

    Today the head came into my lesson. He said to me to be aware he is watching the blog and is not paying any attention to it. But earlier the head boy came up to me and told me that the blog and its issues will be a topic at the next senate meeting. I’m quite please with that result

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