There is a movement happening across Australia that seeks to challenge and change current school uniforms. Some arguments focus on the diversity of students in Australia and the need for school uniforms to reflect this, while others focus on the need for school uniforms to be responsive to the Australian climate. In addition, arguments have been raised that school uniforms are outdated and don’t reflect what is largely worn in workplaces across the country.

All of these arguments are important, and one that I would add, and feel particularly passionate about, is the need for school uniforms to no longer discriminate against girls. Many schools across Australia, at both the primary and secondary level, require girls to wear dresses and skirts to school, and turning up in shorts or pants will see girls given detention. As girls wear shorts and pants in every other aspect of their lives in Australia, and boys wear shorts and pants to school, it is direct discrimination to refuse them to allow them to wear shorts and pants to school because of their gender.

There are many reasons why girls should be allowed to wear shorts and long pants to school, but one of the most notable is that skirts and dresses restrict how active girls can be. Toward the end of 2016, Active Healthy Kids Australia (AHKA), a collaboration of physical activity and health researchers from around the nation, released its second Report Card on the Physical Activity of Children and Young People.

The Report Card assigned a grade of D- for both Overall Physical Activity and for Sedentary Behaviours. Dr Schranz, AHKA Co-Chair and Research Fellow from The University of South Australia, and Vincent (2016) argue that “the solution to this problem … requires the involvement of parents, schools, communities, local, state/territory and federal governments. We need a culture shift that sees physical activity being prioritised every day”.

Allowing girls to wear shorts and long pants to school every day, and not just on ‘sports days’, would go a large way to increasing their likelihood of doing physical activity. To continue to force girls into skirts and dresses as their only option completely undermines the cultural shift that Schranz and Vincent describe, and sees school actively undermining the physical activity of girls.

In refusing to allow girls choices in their uniform options, schools in many states are contravening their Education Department’s policies. In New South Wales, for example, The Department of Education and Communities School Uniform Policy and Guidelines state that a school uniform should:

  • cater for all students in the school community in a manner sensitive to gender and local cultural and social issues including cultural and religious diversity;
  • meet requirements of occupational health and safety, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation;
  • provide girls and boys with equal access to the full range of school activities;
  • enable both sexes to participate actively and safely in school life.

Similarly in South Australia, the Department for Education and Child Development School Dress Code Policy states that “the issue of gender incorporates the notion of girls having a right to choose. Girls should have a right to choose clothing, and to choose clothing to allow for freedom of movement, level of comfort, for safety and in consideration of climatic factors, and specific circumstances such as pregnancy. An inflexible dress code policy based on sex could be in breach of the Equal Opportunity Act”.

In addition, schools that do not provide choices for girls in school uniform options may be in breach of anti-discrimination legislation. The Federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984 defines direct discrimination as occurring when someone receives less favourable treatment on the ground of a protected attribute (such as sex) in circumstances that are the same or not materially different. It can be argued that girls are being treated less favourably than boys by not having access to shorts and long pants and the freedom these items allow.

Despite clear direction in state education policy and legislation, some schools do not offer girls choice and directly restrict options. To bring light to this fact and challenge the legitimacy of this stance, a national group called Girls’ Uniform Agenda (GUA) has been established. GUA seeks to place pressure on Education Department’s and individual schools to bring uniform policies into line with current policy and community expectations.

Girls’ Uniform Agenda also strives to empower girls and parents across the country to request uniform changes in schools where the rights of girls in this area are not being upheld. If you would like to contact Girls’ Uniform Agenda to request or offer support, please go to our website at www.girlsuniformagenda.org.

Dr Amanda Mergler – Queensland Representative

Girls’ Uniform Agenda

This article was reproduced with permission.