A school in New Zealand has done away with gendered uniforms, replacing them with shorts, a kilt and trousers that can be worn by either sex.
The move comes after several UK schools introduced ‘gender neutral’ uniform policies and South Australia announced that its public schools would adhere to a mandatory transgender and intersex policy from this year.
In the latest case, Dunedin North Intermediate, located on New Zealand’s South Island, made the decision following complaints from its female students who refused to wear a skirt, arguing that it reinforced outdated gender stereotypes.
Last year, the school, which has 200 students aged 10-13, agreed that its girls could wear trousers. However, those who chose to wear this attire began getting teased for dressing like boys.
Subsequently, the uniform now includes five options – shorts, long shorts, a kilt, trousers or culottes (an item of clothing worn on the lower half of the body) – that are able to be worn by any student.
The school’s principal, Heidi Hayward, said she hoped this decision would promote greater inclusivity and safeguard the school’s diversity.
“Hopefully the flow-on effect from this is kids at our school who are questioning their gender or sexuality, hear that message that it is ok and we value diversity and being comfortable in your own skin,” she told The Guardian.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, said that students not identifying as male or female shouldn’t be forced into apparel based on their gender, and continuing to do so could create the capacity for litigation.
“I suspect that we're a while away from these matters entering court rooms, but I think we're knocking at the door for these issues to become very bad press for schools,” she told The Educator.
“In a world of social media, restricting options for a vulnerable group can effortlessly become a bad news story for a school.”
Last year, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission identified school uniform policies as an area where schools could find themselves vulnerable to legal action.
The Commission said that: “requiring female students to wear dresses instead of pants may amount to direct discrimination”.
Rosewarne said it would be in the best interests of schools to “get out in front” of these issues early.
“Schools should be progressive and abreast of the political climate, but also make only incremental changes that won't seem too renegade and thus won't ruffle too many feathers,” she said.
“Sanctioned options are the approach of most schools that now have a range of options: pants or skirts or dresses. The sticking point however, is that at present these options lists are divided by gender.”
While she was not aware of schools that had a unisex or gender-free approach to uniform, such an approach would be the simplest way to create an environment of inclusivity.
“Most education policy literature on this topic identifies that schools believe that uniforms quell juvenile violence and help to eliminate socioeconomic differences which are too often the cause of tension between students,” Rosewarne said.
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