Girls’ School Uniforms: Why We Need Girls’ Uniform Agenda

In early January, 2017, I published an article in The Conversation about girls’ school uniforms, asking why we still make girls wear skirts and dresses to school? The article was read by over 115 000 people, and I was contacted by a range of parents across the country.

Most notably I was contacted by Simone Cariss, a mother from Victoria who had started a petition after her daughter had been refused the right to wear pants to school. Based on the overwhelming response to Simone’s petition, which sits at over 19 550 signatures, and the outpouring of support that came from my article on The Conversation, Simone and I co-founded a national group to tackle the issue of girls’ school uniforms.

Girls’ Uniform Agenda is an Australia wide group, comprising parents, academics, educators and public health executives. We aim to:
1. Support parents and girls who seek to have uniform policy changes implemented in their schools;
2. Encourage school leaders to recognise that girls require a range of suitable formal and informal uniform options, including shorts and long pants; and
3. Campaign for legislative and policy change in this area.

The Girls’ Uniform Agenda website provides a range of resources that parents and students can edit and use as they seek to generate change in girls’ school uniforms at their school. We have detailed the relevant Education Department policies and legislation for each state, and provide advice and direction on arguments that can be put forward to support the rights of girls to have school uniform choices.

In refusing to allow girls choices in girls’ school 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… 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.

Girls’ Uniform Agenda seeks to place pressure on Education Department’s and individual schools to bring their girls’ school uniforms into line with current policy and community expectations. We also aim 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.

I asked in my original article why we still force girls into skirts and dresses at school? I’m still waiting for a reasonable answer. Of course, there isn’t one, and if Education Department’s and State Government’s won’t enforce policy and legislation, they may find themselves facing students and parents in court.

Dr Amanda Mergler