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A British girl's bold bid: dress like the boys

Mother's insistence that her daughter should be allowed to wear trousers to school instead of a skirt appears set to become a minor legal cause clbre in Britain.

Claire Hale, a professor at Leeds University, in Yorkshire, says she is determined to sue Whickham Comprehensive School over its ban on long pants for female pupils.

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Professor Hale argues that her daughter Jo, a young teen, should be allowed to enjoy "equal rights with boys" in matters of dress.

Until Hale decided to contest the school's claim that the ban helps to "promote Whickham as a center of excellence," the issue of school uniforms appeared to have drifted out of public debate. In the US, more and more schools are starting to adopt uniforms, but in Britain they have a long and colorful history.

Now they appear more popular than ever among school administrators and parents.

According to a 1998 survey by the store Woolworths UK, 83 percent of grade schools require their pupils to wear a uniform, and 9 out of 10 parents back the idea. Even so, on pants for girls, most schools manage to be more flexible than the powers-that-be at Whickham.

At Southwold Primary School, Nottingham, for example, girl pupils must wear a blue sweater, but are allowed a choice of gray skirt, culottes, or long pants (but not jeans). On what the clothes do for pupils, the school takes a line that prevails in most of Britain.

Source of pride or discrimination?

Alan Clark, chair of governors at Southwold, says, "The wearing of [a] school uniform engenders pride in being a member of the school community." And he believes it "supports the development of positive attitudes to learning."

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Maybe, says Hale, but faced with Whickham headmaster John Lea's charge that she has become "a little obsessive" about the skirts versus pants issue, she contends the school is trying to enforce a dress code that breaks Britain's sex discrimination laws. She says her local member of Parliament agrees, and claims that Britain's Department of Education has given her the green light to mount a court challenge.

That may be pushing things a bit. In a carefully phrased letter to Hale, an education minister wrote the current law is "unclear" about school dress codes. "Neither the role of the [school] governing body in adopting a school uniform, nor that of the head in enforcing it, has been tested in the courts," the minister wrote, adding that he was "sympathetic" to Hale's case.

In fact, in Britain school uniforms are popular with politicians as well as parents.

Among Prime Minister Tony Blair's promises in the 1997 general election campaign was a pledge (as yet unredeemed) to ban baseball caps, jeans, and sneakers in all English state-financed schools.

According to Bernard Clarke, headmaster of King Alfred's School, at Wantage, near Oxford, which has a pedigree dating back to 1434, a powerful argument for school uniforms is that they frustrate the urge of pupils to vie with each other to be on the cutting edge of fashion.

Once decided upon, school uniforms tend to remain, well, uniform. At the elite Eton College, near the queen's Windsor Castle, the silk top hat ceased to be part of the mandatory dress code only at the outbreak of World War II, when school governors found that it did not fit well with a gas mask.

Hale has a stack of arguments to challenge Whickham Comprehensive's case that a ban on pants for girls "reflects a well-ordered and high academic, but caring, ethos." Girls, she says, are safer from sexual attack if they wear pants, and claims local police support her view. She says nylon pantyhose worn with a skirt are hot and uncomfortable. And if a female pupil is allowed to wear pants, she says all argument about skirts being worn too short -a perennial problem among schoolgirls -"ceases to be relevant."

A question of cost

Lawyers are cagey about Hale's chances of forcing the school governors to abandon the pants ban, except for one thing: the cash argument.

A legal source at Britain's government-backed Equal Opportunities Commission says "just about everybody seems to agree that uniforms are cheaper than ordinary clothes." And there was "an even stronger case" for saying boys' uniforms are cheaper than those for girls.

This is because pants and socks last longer than skirts and pantyhose, which snag easily and are expensive to replace.

If Hale does wind up in front of a judge and manages to persuade him or her that, on cost grounds, her daughter Jo is a victim of gender discrimination, she may stand a chance of making the Whickham governors eat what she calls their "sexist words."

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