School uniforms: Public Opinion & the Rule of Law
Today, I have a special guest post from Dr Amanda Mergler, co-founder of Girls Uniform Agenda. Girls Uniform Agenda campaigns for young girls to have the right to a choice of uniform, including pants, like boys have. This is something I’ve written about in the past and it’s interesting to see what the legislation says versus what is actually in practice.
Dr Mergler from Girls Uniform Agenda:
What girls can, and cannot wear to school has been an area of contention for some time. In public opinion and media reports, there is overwhelming support that girls should be offered shorts and pants as options in their everyday school uniform. We at Girls’ Uniform Agenda argue that all girls in all schools should be provided with a range of uniform options, which must include shorts and pants.
In Australia in 2017, some schools offer girls a range of options in their formal uniforms, while a large number do not. The haphazard way in which choice for girls may or may not be offered highlights the need for clear legislative and education policy in this area.
In order to ensure that those within the education system in Australia uphold equitable practices, various federal and state legislation and policy have been created. Federally, the most pertinent piece of legislation is the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. This act defines direct discrimination as occurring when someone receives less favourable treatment on the ground of a protected attribute (such as their sex).
Similarly, each state in Australia has its own Act that explicitly defines discrimination. While the wording may differ slightly, each of these Acts outlines that it is unlawful to treat someone less favourably based on their sex (among other attributes). It could be argued that schools that do not provide choices for girls in school uniform options are in breach of this piece of legislation, as girls are being treated less favourably than boys by not having access to shorts and long pants.
The many ways in which refusing to allow girls to wear shorts and pants is a disadvantage includes restriction of movement; concerns around modesty limiting one’s ability to engage in regular daily tasks (such as walking up stairs and sitting on the floor); and physical health reasons (inability to engage in sport and physical activity including active travel to and from school). These concerns are genuine for girls, and limit the choices available to them in ways that boys do not experience.
State By State.
While legislation is designed to govern what is considered acceptable behaviour and treatment across society in general, education departments generate policies that guide what educators do in schools. In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for ensuring the delivery and regulation of schooling to all children of school age in their jurisdictions. They determine curriculums, register schools, regulate school activities and are directly responsible for the administration of government schools. As such, each state and territory has its own policy on school uniforms, and these offer varying levels of clarity as to the level of choice that needs to be afforded to girls.
In Western Australia for example, the Department of Education has a Dress Code for Students – Policy and Procedures. In this document it is stated that “dress codes should meet local circumstances, the need of individual students and general safety and equity standards. Consideration should be given to clothing that is affordable, comfortable, made from easy care fabric, appropriate for activity, and suitable for all body shapes”.
The Australian Capital Territory Education Directorate has a more detailed policy called the Dress Standard and Uniforms in Canberra Public Schools policy, with additional guidelines. These guidelines state that:
- school based uniform policies should have standards which apply to all students equally, regardless of gender identity;
- school based uniform policies should promote freedom of choice for all students by categorising options by clothing type rather than by gender, for example, shorts, trousers, skirts, rather than boy’s uniform/ girl’s uniform.
- of the items which a school designates as a school uniform, limiting a student’s choice of school uniform items to dress in due to gender may infringe the ACT Discrimination Act (1991).
- uniforms should provide all students with equal access to the full range of school activities.
In Queensland, the Department of Education and Training (DET) Policy and Procedure Register, Student Dress Code states that “student dress codes…are consistent with health and safety considerations and anti-discrimination legislation. Student dress codes offer gender neutral uniform options for all students”. Despite being written as if this is the case in all schools governed by DET, we see in Queensland that a large number of schools do not offer ‘gender neutral’ options to students. Indeed, the overwhelming number of state secondary schools require girls to wear dresses or skirts, with no other option provided.
Thus it appears that Australia has legislation and policies in place that expect schools to provide choices for girls at school. Enforcement of these policies however is clearly lacking, and we would be well advised to put pressure on education departments and politicians to require compliance from schools. In addition, it is advisable that education departments make their policies as explicit as possible, as arguments around what constitutes ‘gender neutral’ can derail schools as they attempt to cater for their students.
One wonders how and why schools have been allowed to get away with flouting legislative and policy requirements. Perhaps the strength of tradition and continuing the status-quo has kept us blind to uniform requirements that no longer serve children at school. What will be powerful in the struggle to change uniform choices for girls is the groundswell of public sentiment that pushes back against what institutions stipulate, as we come to understand that these sentiments are harmful to some in society.
In addition, we should not shy away from the power of the anti-discrimination bodies in each state and the law. Indeed, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (2007) recognised gender differences in school uniform policies as an area where schools were at risk of being sued under discrimination law. As the court of public opinion continues to highlight that refusing girls the choice of shorts and pants at schools is unacceptable, perhaps a legal challenge in a court of law will see this issue resolved across the country.
For more information and resources, visit the Girls Uniform Agenda website.
Contact GUA at email@example.com
Keep an eye out for my upcoming interview with Dr Mergler to learn more about Girls Uniform Agenda!