Schools that have introduced so-called modesty shorts for girls as young as four have been accused of “victim-blaming” and “sexualising young children”.
Headteachers in a number of schools in England and Wales have asked girls to wear shorts under summer dresses so they don’t show their underwear in the playground.
The UK’s leading police officer for child protection said he supported schools that have brought in the controversial policy in response to a rise in upskirting.
But parents and campaigners say modesty shorts sexualise and body-shame young girls.
Dr Charlotte Proudman, a gender-based violence and family law barrister, tweeted: “Girls as young as four are blamed and shamed for their bodies in drawing ‘inappropriate attention’ from predators.
“Girls aren't the problem, predators are.”
In an interview with LBC radio, she said the shorts policy is “pedalling further victim-blaming” and “gender policing”.
TV presenter and former glamour model Jess Davies tweeted: “Four-year-olds and ‘modesty’ shorts should never be in the same sentence. This is sexualising young children.”
And Dr Emily Setty, lecturer in criminology at the University of Surrey, said: “There are just so many things wrong with this modesty shorts situation.
“The word 'modesty', the victim-blaming, body-shaming, the implied sexualisation of a four-year-old.
“And who are these predators at school? Dealing with child sexual abuse should focus on them not four-year-olds’ 'modesty’.”
Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, told The Sunday Times: “If a school wants female pupils to wear modesty shorts so that they feel confident, I am supportive.
“But it has to be done in the context of a broader change about how we want our youth to grow up, and that means challenging what they are seeing online.
“The culture has to tackle the misogyny and the sexual harassment and the sending of nude photos. We have to look at the impact the porn industry is having on the way young men are now developing and exploring their sexuality.”
The Sunday Times reported that the Dell Primary School in Chepstow in Wales suggested to parents in a text last month that girls wear “shorts/cycling shorts under their summer dress”.
Headteacher Steve King told parents it was in response to “concerns about children inadvertently showing their underwear while doing handstands”.
The newspaper reported he wrote in an email to parents: “While we do not want to give children messages that they are responsible for the actions of others, we cannot stand by while children’s actions may attract inappropriate attention from members of the public but did not act to protect them.”
A parent with a daughter at the school told the newspaper: “It is shocking that girls as young as four are being asked to cover up. It suggests their pants and what they wear are a problem.”
The Sunday Times said Parkside Primary Academy in Royston, South Yorkshire, said shorts should be worn under summer dresses.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told Yahoo News UK the union was “not surprised if this has happened in some schools as part of processes intended to safeguard the welfare of pupils”.
He added: “We are aware that there is an argument which says that the focus should not be on what girls wear and more on tackling inappropriate behaviour towards girls.
“However, we would emphasise that schools already put a great deal of work into preventing that sort of behaviour and dealing with incidents which occur, and we are sure that if ‘modesty shorts’ have been introduced this will be only one part of the school’s overall strategy.
“Clearly, dress codes around this issue are sensitive, and are a matter for schools to decide in consultation with pupils and parents.”
Clothing company Next sells what it calls “modesty shorts” for girls as young as two, while River Island sells them for those aged five and over.
Let Clothes Be Clothes, a campaign which challenges gender stereotypes in the design of children’s clothing, tweeted: “Keep children safe, don’t make girls clothing into a safeguarding issue.
“It is not up to children to wear extra clothing. Shame on you Police Chiefs.”
Watch: 'One third of girls' harassed in school uniform