While not required by legislation, the majority of public and private schools in Australia elect to have a mandatory uniform.
One of the main merits of a uniform is that it is claimed to be an “equalizer”. By removing the distraction of social status attached to clothing and apparel, a uniform is meant to foster a sense of belonging and unity in student body. There is also some evidence that suggests uniforms have a positive impact on school attendance and classroom outcomes.
However, in American only 20% of schools have uniforms, with individual schools dictating guidelines and restrictions around what students wear. This leads to countless complaints as parents and students dispute the fairness of dress codes and rally against penalties for breaches over things such as hair colour and style, length of skirts and shorts, bare shoulders and midriffs, or girls wearing leggings as pants.
Despite having uniforms, disputes in Australian schools regarding breaches of dress code are also common, with contentious ones usually relating to hair, shoes and acceptable length of uniforms.
Opponents of uniforms and dress codes claim that their restrictive nature stifles a child’s self expression, stating the rules set by schools are often discriminatory in terms of gender, religion and even sometimes culture.
For example, earlier this year in Victoria there was a case of 16 year old Sudanese twins pulled out of class to be asked to remove their long braids. The reason: it did not “represent the school”. The braided hair style the girls had is fairly conservative, as well as being highly significant in African culture. Understandably the girls felt they were being singled out.
Ironically, this particular school purports to value diversity. The same school also lines students up to check their appearance, including the length of girls’ skirts.
There is a lot of debate surrounding schools that insist girls wear dresses and skirts, without the option of shorts or pants. Many are calling this out as gender discrimination. There is even an Australian group called Girls’ Uniform Agenda that advocates for the choice of shorts and pants to be allowed for all girls at all schools. A major campaign argument is that skirts and dresses can be restrictive to a child’s movement and comfort when at play.
It seems ridiculous that in this day and age that such an agenda is even necessary. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender discrimination in strict uniform /dress code policies.
In America girls have been driven to protesting the sexual discrimination inherent in school dress codes by wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “I am more than a distraction”. There is even a hashtag!
How sad that our girls feel they still need to stand up for themselves in this way. Did all those bras get burnt in the 70’s for nothing?
Thankfully some schools are starting to listen to reason. It’s great to see revolutionary dress codes like this one from Evanston Township High School in the US, which claims to be:
“…written in a manner that does not reinforce stereotypes and that does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group based on race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income or body type/size.”
In Australia we are unlikely to see anything so progressive any time soon, however the good news is some schools are recognising that children (and their parents) want options within the school’s uniform range to suit their individual needs. Hopefully, we will see more of it.
Does your child’s school have a uniform? Do you agree with strict school dress codes or think they are unfair?