A girl rides her bike in a school uniform feat. shorts (image: Getty stock)
A girl rides her bike in a school uniform feat. shorts (image: Getty stock)

OPINIONSocietyFebruary 18, 2020

Counselling for girls to wear shorts at school is still progress, unfortunately

A girl rides her bike in a school uniform feat. shorts (image: Getty stock)
A girl rides her bike in a school uniform feat. shorts (image: Getty stock)

A Southland school has been criticised for requiring girls to see a counsellor before opting to wear shorts as their uniform. It’s merely a symptom of a bigger problem, Madeleine Chapman writes.

On Sunday, Stuff reported that James Hargest College in Southland would soon allow girls to wear shorts or pants as part of their uniform, but only after seeing a guidance counsellor. The story spread quickly and the reaction was a universal damning of both the school and the principal, Andy Wood, who was quoted as saying the counselling session was to ensure that girls had “thought through the possible reactions of other kids” to them wearing shorts or pants.

I read the story and, like many others, scoffed at such an antiquated belief that girls wearing shorts to school would suggest anything out of the ordinary, let alone anything worth counselling. Surely Wood and the school weren’t operating under the assumption that girls who preferred shorts to skirts were in need of counselling.

Turns out they aren’t, really.

Yesterday, Wood clarified his comments to me, explaining the reasoning behind the interim policy. The current uniform at James Hargest College does not allow girls to wear shorts or pants. The matter of introducing a gender neutral uniform is before the board and is expected to be approved and introduced by the end of the school year.

In the meantime, there are a few students – “at the most, six girls” said Wood – who wish to wear shorts before the rule is changed. The first students requested permission from the school and it was granted. But one of the first girls to be approved to wear pants received some negative comments from other students, said Wood. “It was quite hurtful and it surprised us so we thought ‘nah, we have to look after people and make sure that they’re prepared for that possibility.’”

The school has since asked a guidance counsellor to speak with any girls who wish to wear the boys’ uniform (it is the boys’ uniform, rather than tailored shorts, as the designs haven’t been completed for the new uniform) before the rule change, to keep in contact in case there are any issues with other students. That’s all it is, said Wood. “The whole thing isn’t about whether girls should wear shorts or not, it’s about looking after girls who say they want to be different from what the current rules are, and supporting them until the official rules change.”

If and when the school releases shorts and pants tailored for female students, there will no longer be a requirement to go past the counsellor. “At that stage they won’t need to ask anybody,” said Wood. “It’ll be part of the official uniform code.”

Two options for Wellington Girls College students (images: NZUNIFORMS)

While I can’t help but feel mild dismay at the very concept of the policy, I understand the intentions behind it. As much as we might all love the feeling of the moral high ground beneath our feet, it’s not a solid base. Prejudices exist and kids can be unspeakably cruel for illogical reasons. That a school would feel like they had to support female students who wish to wear shorts, after evidence of bullying and negative comments towards those who already did, is the scary part. For his part, Wood seemed genuinely surprised by the reaction to the story.

“Everybody’s coming down on our school because of the process put in place to look after kids. Nobody’s saying good on you for considering a change.”

Sadly he has a point. The story here isn’t that a school is making girls have a counselling session before wearing shorts to school. The story is that most uniformed schools don’t let girls wear shorts at all.

This isn’t a debate about whether or not all school uniforms are outdated. I hated wearing a school uniform for 13 years of my life because I would’ve much preferred shorts over the skirts and pinafores I was made to wear. But at the same time, I appreciated the level playing field the uniforms created among students. A level playing field that dissolved every non-uniform day when some students came to school in expensive clothes and others didn’t.

But a uniform’s purpose is simply that. Uniformity. Group identity. There’s room for flexibility within that, as some schools have recently learned.

Wellington Girls’ College introduced culottes as a uniform option in 2017. The culottes were designed for women and trialled by students who gave feedback throughout the year prior. They’ve since sold well and the school has added pants to the uniform code. Principal Julia Davidson said the reason the pants came later is that, with the uniform colour being teal, they were told by the designer that the girls “would look like Bananas in Pyjamas”. The new pants are black.

The majority of students at Wellington Girls’ still stick with the original skirt, and anecdotal evidence suggests that more culottes and pants are sold than actually worn, but the students appreciate the option. “It really wasn’t a big deal,” Davidson said. “And I would be very surprised if I heard that anyone had gotten negative comments about it.”

Everyone wears shorts and pants. Of the 11 women in the Spinoff office today, seven are wearing pants. One is wearing shorts (me). Three are wearing dresses. I only know this because, for the sake of this argument, I made a note of what everyone was wearing during our editorial meeting.

Otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed because what people wear in their day to day lives is not a big deal. Except maybe it is. Because if it really wasn’t, every uniformed school in New Zealand would offer gender neutral options. If it wasn’t a big deal, no school would feel the need to mandate a visit to the counsellor based off a uniform choice. If it wasn’t a big deal, a school introducing shorts and pants for girls wouldn’t make the news.

That one school has found it necessary to insist students see a counsellor before wearing shorts to school is worrying. That they’re still ahead of most schools in New Zealand is more worrying still.

Keep going!