Two recent victories in the battle to win the right for girls to wear shorts and pants to school has put girls’ school uniform back in the spotlight in Australia. They are big wins in policy in NSW and Queensland. But now comes the struggle to have those policies implemented, and meanwhile the fight continues elsewhere for girls to even be heard about their school uniform rights.
All girls in public schools in NSW and Queensland now have the right to wear shorts and pants to school. Queensland’s Education Minister, Grace Grace, announced a new Student Dress Code policy earlier in July, requiring all state schools in Queensland to offer girls the choice of shorts and pants at school, and just last week NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, announced a new School Uniform Policy stating “girls must have the option to wear shorts and pants” in NSW state schools.
Your school may have already given girls an option to wear shorts and pants, many schools have, but often the option is qualified and means that girls end up in dresses and skirts anyway at some stage. The changes in Queensland and NSW to policy are unequivocal: girls now have the right to choose to wear shorts or pants to school in all public schools in these states at all times. No longer will school uniform policy be used to force girls to wear dresses and skirts to school for any reason, including for formal occasions or to play sport.
In 2018 you might think the battle to allow girls to wear shorts and pants to school would be over. However it has been a long and difficult fight to get these policy changes. And we are still fighting for this right for girls in other states and territories and for girls in Catholic and Independent schools.
For decades in Australia, girls have been wearing shorts and long pants anywhere and everywhere they want, except to school. Most schools in Australia require students to wear a uniform, and until now, all too frequently the options available reinforced that girls must wear dresses and skirts, and boys must wear shorts and pants.
Why did we need policy change?
In Queensland the previous uniform policy had stated the requirement that “student dress codes offer gender neutral uniform options for all students”. But we collected data on 310 Queensland schools in April to June 2017 that clearly demonstrated this was not occurring. In Brisbane, 70% of the surveyed state high schools required girls to wear skirts and dresses as formal uniform (not sport uniform), with no option of formal shorts and/or long pants for girls.
In New South Wales girls were not fairing much better. In 2017 a public school was taken to the Anti-Discrimination Board of New South Wales by a parent whose daughters had been refused the right to wear shorts and pants. The Anti-Discrimination Board upheld that this was gender discrimination, and the school was ordered by the Education Department to offer girls these options. Despite this, Education Minister Rob Stokes ruled out at that time, changing the state policy to mandate that all New South Wales public schools offer shorts and pants to girls. Change had occurred for all girls in one public school in that state, while all others were left to fight it out school by school. This of course changed last week with the announcement of the new policy.
In our work advocating for girls’ uniform choices for the Girls’ Uniform Agenda, we have faced many challenges, in part due to an apparent lack of understanding of the term “gender neutral”. A number of schools have simply removed the words “boys” and “girls” from their uniform list, arguing that girls could now wear the (boy) shorts or pants if they want to. As girls overwhelmingly refused to don the ‘boys’ uniform’, most girls continued to wear skirts or dresses to school, even if they would prefer and be more comfortable in female-cut trousers or shorts. So “gender neutral” does not provide true choice for girls. Another issue is, where schools might offer girls choice in their “day to day” wear of pants and/or shorts, they continue to stipulate that the dress or skirt must be worn for ‘formal events’ such as awards nights and on school excursions.
Why this is a basic right for girls in schools
The continuation of forcing girls to wear skirts and dresses is an important issue, as girls are known to participate in less physical activity than boys by the time they reach early adolescence. While the reasons for this are complex, restriction in freedom of movement due to skirts and/or dresses in school uniform has been cited as a contributing factor. Further, it has been found when girls have the opportunity to wear pant options for a fortnight they engage in significantly greater amounts of physical activity than when wearing skirts or dresses.
Simple activities such as sitting on the floor can be challenging and humiliating for girls when they are restricted to wearing a skirt or dress options. It is notable that female teachers are not restricted to skirt or dress attire any more in public schools.
Advocating for change in girls’ school uniforms
As with most large-scale policy change, there are a lot of hardworking people advocating behind the scenes. Girls’ Uniform Agenda (GUA) was co-founded in February 2017, and now has representatives in all states and territories across Australia, other than the Northern Territory.
We advocate that all girls in all schools should have the option of shorts and long pants as part of their everyday school uniform. We have written to all Education Ministers across Australia and worked closely with many state Education Departments. At the same time we mobilised a wide supporter base. On our Girl’s Uniform Agenda site we celebrate and showcase schools who have updated their uniform policy.
Politicians and teachers, including Queensland Teachers’ Union organiser, Sam Pidgeon, and NSW Greens MP, Mehreen Faruqi, have been active supporters of changing the policies in their states.
However the most impressive activism comes from schoolgirls and their families. Using resources from our website they write letters and speak out in meetings at their schools. This makes a powerful difference.
What the new policies say and why words matter
When invited by the QLD Department of Education to be involved in the rewrite of the Queensland Student Dress Code policy, the Girls’ Uniform Agenda knew that the words used in the policy mattered. We argued strongly that the policy must explicitly state that girls must (not that principals should just ‘consider’) be offered shorts and long pants, and that these must be available as part of everyday, sport and formal wear. Additionally we argued that gender inclusive options, such as boy-cut and girl-cut shorts and pants should be available.
The wording adopted in the new Queensland Student Dress Code policy is unambiguous. The policy states that, “Dress codes must provide uniform options, including shorts and pants, in all uniform categories for all students, regardless of gender”. Uniform categories are all the different types of uniforms that a school may have for different occasions or activities, such as formal, every day, winter, sports, and extra-curricular activities.
To reiterate the point, and highlight the need for uniform policy to be in line with current legislation, it is also noted that principals are responsible for “developing a dress code that complies with relevant anti-discrimination legislation ensuring that dress codes do not give rise to unlawful discrimination against students. Shorts and pants options, in designs suitable to a student’s gender identity, must be included for all students in all uniform categories”.
If a girl identifies as a girl and wants to wear shorts, she must have access to gender neutral and/or girl-styled shorts and these must be able to be worn in all uniform categories. This means schools cannot force girls to wear the boys’ shorts, or to wear a dress for formal occasions (such as awards nights or school photographs). While a deadline for compliance is not stated in the policy, the Minister has indicated that all Queensland state schools should have shorts and pants options for girls by the beginning of the 2019 school year.
In New South Wales
While the wording in the New South Wales policy in less robust, it is stated that, “All students should have the opportunity to access the full range of school activities, including physical activities while wearing a school uniform, and girls must have the option to wear shorts and pants”. It goes on to say that, “A school uniform should include items that are affordable, comfortable, made from easy-care fabrics, appropriate for activity and suitable for all body shapes”. Thus it can be argued that girls’ body shapes are often different to boys’ body shapes, and appropriately designed girl-cut shorts and pants should be available.
Providing further direction to schools are the Departmental Guidelines that accompany the policy. Under ‘Wellbeing factors to be considered’, it states that “Short and pants options are available, including specific options for girls”. Unfortunately, schools have been given a three-year timeline to comply, however Girls’ Uniform Agenda will continue to work with schools and families to gain compliance rapidly.
From policy to practice
Our focus now turns to the implementation of these policies in Queensland and New South Wales. Many schools ignored the previous requirements for gender neutral options and to uphold anti-discrimination legislation, and it would be foolish to assume that all schools will simply fall into line with the new policies.
As such, Girls’ Uniform Agenda will continue to monitor school uniform policies and listen to the lived experiences of families and schoolgirls on the ground as we move forward with this change.
For schools, the policy changes mean meeting with their uniform supplier and sourcing girls’ shorts and girls’ long pants to add to their uniform list. GUA has been working with uniform suppliers across Queensland and New South Wales to increase these options, and we will support schools that need assistance with this task.
Fighting for the same right for all school girls in Australia
These current policies will positively impact on all students in state schools across Queensland and New South Wales. They are inclusive and do not remove the rights of any student.
However they do not extend to the Catholic and Independent school sectors. What does apply to these sectors is the anti-discrimination legislation being upheld by this rewrite of state school uniform codes. Independent and Catholic schools that continue to enforce skirts and dresses as the only uniform option for girls are at risk of having complaints filed with the Anti-Discrimination Commissions.
In order to prevent this time consuming, emotional and costly exercise, we would encourage all schools to update their uniform policies to include shorts and pants for girls before they are forced to do so.
We want all girls in every Australian school to have the right to choose to wear shorts and pants to school, and we will keep fighting until all school dress code policies in Australia no longer discriminate against girls.
Dr Amanda Mergler is a registered psychologist and the co-founder of Girls Uniform Agenda (GUA). GUA advocates for the rights of girls to have the option of wearing shorts and pants to school as part of their everyday school uniform. Amanda has taught undergraduate and postgraduate students in human development, educational psychology, and behaviour management. She has been involved in research projects examining the values of teachers, pre-service teachers and school chaplains.
Dr Sarah Cohen-Woods is Mathew Flinders Fellow at the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University where she heads the Behavioural Genetic and Environmental Mechanisms (Behavioural GEMs) Lab. She is the South Australian Representative for the Girls’ Uniform Agenda. Sarah’s research into the genetic and environmental risk factors for poor mental health and physical outcomes (such as obesity) made her acutely aware of the importance of equal opportunity for active play and comfort. Sarah is now leading a study into the impact of new uniform procedures in South Australia, and investigating how uniform choice may impact childrens’ well-being.
Find out more on The Girls’ Uniform Agenda website. Follow us on Twitter (@GirlsAgenda) and Instagram (@GirlsAgenda)