Uniform reform: dress codes in Victorian schools under scrutiny

Uniform and dress codes have commonly found themselves in the media, often when found to be at odds with changing societal expectations and values. Since 2017, female students at Victorian government schools have been allowed to wear shorts and trousers.1 Independent schools have a choice. Here we discuss what factors may influence your school’s choice over uniforms and dress codes.

Community pressure and expectations

There is mounting pressure on schools to ensure that their uniform policies promote equal participation and are tailored to the needs of different students, including on the basis of their sex, religion, culture, disability and gender identity.

Anti-discrimination law

Students must not be discriminated against on the grounds of personal characteristics such as gender identity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation (among others). These characteristics may impact how a student responds to a uniform requirement, and this could result in indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination is when treating everybody the same way disadvantages someone because of a personal characteristic.

Example: Arora v Melton Christian College2

VCAT found the College had contravened the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) because:

  • The uniform policy was a requirement imposed on the child.
  • The restriction on long hair disproportionately impacted the child, due to the religious beliefs of the family (Sikh).
  • The requirement for the child to comply with the hair requirement was unreasonable. The College could not prove it was reasonable.
  • Common identity, community and inclusivity through the uniform could be achieved without imposing the discriminatory requirement.

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) (the Act) contains an exception that permits schools to set and enforce reasonable standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students (the Exception).3 A standard of dress will be ‘reasonable’ if the school has taken into account the views of the school community in setting the standard. This means, if community views are changing, your standards may also need to change. The more extensive, engaging and collaborative the consultation process, the more likely it is to be considered reasonable. When did your school last review its uniform policy?

Health and safety

Could elements of the school uniform put students at risk? Consider the risks of:

  • Sunburn and heat stroke;
  • Jewellery, cords etc that could cause harm when playing sport or during active outdoor play;
  • School bags that are too heavy and/or pose risks of back injuries to students.

Child safety and wellbeing requirements

Ministerial Order 1359 requires schools to pay particular attention to the needs of students with a disability, students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and LGBTQIA+ students – who may be disproportionately impacted by uniform policies.

You can find broader information about transitioning to a more gender inclusive school environment here. We also talk about associated topics of bathrooms and events regarding gender inclusion here.

Setting a dress code can promote a shared sense of identity and pride, allow students to feel equal and enhance the profile of the school in the wider community. Whilst there can be many benefits associated with a dress code, they should be sensitive to the needs of different students and sufficiently flexible to promote equal participation. Schools must achieve a balance between imposing standards of dress and behaviour with their obligation not to discriminate against students on the basis of a protected attribute; one being sex where the questions of trousers for girls arises again.

Pants and trousers are less common options for girls under the dress codes in non-government schools. However, advocates for uniform reform argue that forcing girls to wear dresses and skirts reinforces rigid gender stereotypes, limits physical movement and makes girls less inclined to exercise or participate in sporting activities.

How we can help

Moores can help your school with:

  • Advice on anti-discrimination issues that arise in an education context.
  • Updating enrolment policies and agreements to ensure that they protect the legal interests of the school and comply with anti-discrimination law.
  • Resolving disputes with parents following complaints regarding discrimination.
  • Updating school policies and procedures, including dress codes and grievance procedures.
  • Delivering professional development sessions to staff and volunteers (e.g. equal opportunity training).

Contact us

Please contact us for more detailed and tailored help.

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Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek legal advice regarding the application of the law to you or your organisation.

1 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/girls-win-right-to-wear-shorts-and-trousers-to-all-victorian-state-schools-20170912-gyfwf9.html

2Arora v Melton Christian College (19 September 2017 – VCAT)

3 Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) s 42.