Wellington, June 26, 2022
Secondary school students will be able to wear their cultural and religious taonga with pride, thanks to the first-ever New Zealand Human Rights Commission official school uniform guidelines.
The non-prescriptive guidelines, which have been approved by the Education Ministry came about as a result of Labour Ethnic Caucus MP Ingrid Leary’s advocacy for proactive advice to schools, following several cases in her Taieri electorate involving school uniform and grooming protocols.
“These cases involving cornbraid hairstyles and the wearing of hijab made me realise that students have a different experience of cultural or gender safety, depending on which school they attended. There was usually no guidance to the Boards of Trustees on what is considered extreme, and no safety around taonga such as tā moko, tatau, and expressions of religious commitment such as Christian Crosses,” she said.
Gender binary uniforms
According to Ms Leary, there is no perceived need to have students understand the significance of hijab and other cultural and religious wear.
“I wanted to know how gender diverse students felt about wearing gender-binary uniforms, and whether school uniform requirements were helping or hindering their learning,” she said.
With her Labour colleague Deputy Speaker Adrian Rurawhe, Ms Leary convened a round-table discussion on school uniforms facilitated by the Human Rights Commission and Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon.
They invited students from six secondary schools from the greater Wellington region to share their experiences and views on school uniforms and grooming protocols. Affordability (which came up during the discussions) was beyond the remit of the discussion, as the MPs wanted to focus on questions relating to diversity and safety.
Human Rights Commission guidelines
The HRC guidelines which evolved from those discussions and other extensive research state they are a ‘‘non-binding guidance on school uniform policies from a Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights lens’’.
The guidelines note that many schools have uniforms and that they can be a “great way to distinguish students and instil a sense of community and pride in their school.”
The guidelines state that school uniforms can also help reduce bullying from peers based on clothing and appearance. This makes it important that students can have their rights upheld while fulfilling their responsibilities of wearing school uniform.
Inclusive uniform policies help improve students’ mental health and well-being by “allowing them to feel that their whole self is recognised and respected.”
The guidelines include (a) Allowing Maori students to wear items that are taonga to them, such as tā moko, pounamu or hei tiki (b) Taonga can include Maori hairstyles and length, so schools should not impose traditional western norms on Maori students (c) The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on several grounds including sex (including gender), religious belief, colour, race and disability, which could include schools providing non-gendered uniform options (d) Schools should reflect and accommodate the diversity of their students in their uniform policies. This can be achieved by including items of cultural or religious significance (e) Schools should exclude certain symbols or regalia that represent hate, such as the swastika or confederate flag-type memorabilia.
Schools are still entitled to make their own uniform rules; however, they are advised to consult with students, parents and staff, and ensure that school is a physically and emotionally safe place for all who attend.
Schools also need to acknowledge Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the relevant student rights in the Education and Training Act, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and the Human Rights Act.
Ms Leary said that her teenage son had grappled with ethnic profiling and uniform policies which had not affirmed his identity, and this made her sensitive to the experience of students who don’t fit into so-called mainstream norms.
“I recently had a teacher from a Dunedin school come up to me at an event to say that they are no longer requiring their students to hide their pounamu and their crucifix necklaces under their shirts. This really meant so much to me as a critical step in the work we need to do to ensure schools are safe for all students in New Zealand,” Ms Leary said.