Allied Press Magazine Logo
03 magazine logo

In confidence

14 March 2022
Showing off the new trousers available for Columba College pupils to wear
Showing off the new trousers available for Columba College pupils to wear was Poppy Edmond (14) in front of (from left) Franki Jones (10), Sophie Boyle (15), Emmi Murray (12), Darcy Baldwin (14), Tegen Baldwin (14), Lily Ferro (17), Angela Fu (18) and Shiah Taela (9) at the school in October. Photo: Peter McIntosh

A research review highlights how inadequate school uniforms impact young people. We speak to the academic involved and a school that’s adapting their policies to empower students. Words Anna Wallace

While society and education have changed so much in the decades since many Style readers went to school – student uniforms often look eerily similar. A University of Otago academic is challenging the ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mentality. Dr Johanna Reidy reviewed the research* about uniforms and its impact on young people’s education and health outcomes and is using this insight to challenge outdated school policies.

The public health researcher is highlighting the impact of inadequate student uniforms on everything from young people’s mental health to sun safety, inclusivity to physical comfort, and of course confidence.

Johanna says the evidence clearly shows school uniform design influences mental health and physical activity – and is calling for a radical redesign, particularly to help girls feel comfortable and be physically active at school. She says the focus should be on ensuring student comfort so they can learn.

“We know so much more about what makes us healthy in mind and body, and the studies show that girls in a sports-style uniform do more physical activity at school.”

Her review found that:

  • Skirts created a barrier to incidental physical activity on the school journey and at school for girls, who were afraid of accidentally showing their underwear or whose movement was restricted by garments.
  • Strict policies on summer and winter uniform don’t allow students to dress appropriately for the weather conditions.
  • Girls’ uniforms also tended to be more expensive.
  • Many uniforms failed to provide adequate sun protection, as uniforms had a lower total body coverage than clothing worn outside of school.
  • Many families struggled with the high up-front cost, particularly low-income families.

It shouldn’t be news

Johanna has received emails from girls in secondary education who want help convincing their school’s decision-makers to adopt a more gender-neutral uniform policy.

“A sports-style uniform seems to be the best in terms of physical and mental wellness for everyone,” says Johanna. “But at the very least, a school should have a gender-neutral option of shorts and trousers.”

A number of Kiwi schools are now providing unisex uniform options. In late 2018, Otago Girls’ High School did, thanks to the lobbying of students. At the time, it was reported to be one of only a small number of high schools in the South Island giving girls the option of wearing pants. Late last year, Columba College unveiled their new garments, and this year it’s expected all Dunedin high schools will have the option available. The fact these changes were even news bothers Johanna.

“By joining the dots in a systemic way, I hope that leaders take note of the critical mass of research that shows that uniform design is important.”

Johanna highlights the importance of weather-appropriate attire too – shorts, a collared polo neck, a wide-brimmed hat – are vital for our summers. And she questions why all schools aren’t flexible in letting students decide when they wear warmer or cooler clothes.

There is evidence that a uniform (any uniform) removes distractions. They help students settle to task and reduce peer pressure to dress in a certain way. Over a student’s time at school, it’s cheaper than mufti too. But Johanna implores “it needs to be fit for purpose”.

"At the very least, a school should have a gender-neutral uniform policy."

Dr Johanna Reidy

Creating safe spaces

Kylie Horgan’s first task as Lincoln High School deputy principal was to review their uniform policy.
She says it’s not just about academic outcomes – it’s about wellbeing.

“Hearing from Qtopia about the challenges for students who don’t necessarily identify as male or female, or know where they sit on that continuum, was a real eye-opener for me,” she admits.

“We want students to feel good about themselves, to thrive holistically, and feel emotionally safe.”

In their stakeholder survey, 76 per cent of Lincoln’s female students wanted to get rid of the long woollen kilt.
The school introduced gender-neutral clothing in 2017 (now defined as ‘fitted’ and ‘tailored’ rather than ‘girls’ and ‘boys’) and each year, more and more students take up the option of wearing shorts and pants.

“We’re about evolutionary change, a cultural shift – it may not be revolutionary – but we’re keen to take our community on the journey with us, and that means hearing what their values are too.”

The community wanted a uniform that was good quality, easy to keep clean, warm and affordable, says Kylie. They still wanted to keep blazers, although with flexibility on when they wear it.

Kylie questions what traditional school systems are teaching our kids, and because of that, school leaders need to question what may no longer be serving young people.

Lincoln High has removed gendered ‘Head Boy’ and ‘Head Girl’ labels, opting for a best-fit student leadership team. They also have a ‘student voice’ month where students can propose changes – that’s how the school’s policies on piercings and facial hair changed.

“We want to produce young people who can lead, who don’t have a fixed mindset,” she says.

“You can change uniforms and toilet signs but if the system itself isn’t empowering those young people and the culture isn’t shifting to meet their needs, issues will remain. It can’t just be a band aid – we’ve worked on the outside stuff, but we are still working on the inside part.”

* Relevant research from around the world that was available in English and had been peer reviewed.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram