Push for NSW public schools to introduce gender-neutral uniform policies

Mother-of-two pushes to overhaul school uniforms

Alison Boston won't send her daughter to a school that forces girls to wear skirts or dresses.

As Alison Boston begins the hunt for a school for her four-year-old daughter Sadie, she knows one thing: she won't choose one that forces girls to wear skirts or dresses.

"There's no workplace in Australia that requires women to wear skirts and dresses," said the mother of two from the Sydney suburb of Mosman.

"It's an archaic stereotype that has no place in our schools.

"It's an archaic stereotype": Alison Boston with her son Wesley and daughter Sadie.
"It's an archaic stereotype": Alison Boston with her son Wesley and daughter Sadie.  Photo: Steven Siewert

"There's been plenty of research that suggests girls are less inclined to do playground activity if they're made to wear skirts.

"And even sitting cross-legged in class, I vividly recall boys pulling up girls' skirts as a bullying tactic when I was in school. So I'm worried about sexual harassment starting at that early age."

Ms Boston said she was shocked when she first started looking at schools for her son Wesley, who is now in year 1, and came across strict uniform policies.

"Some schools only had a dress option for girls and I went, 'how could this be the case?'," she said.

"A lot of parents didn't realise that was a thing schools still had."

The effect of uniforms on gender-diverse students has begun to gain prominence, with at least two Sydney schools addressing the issue.


International Grammar School recently announced that all students can wear any combination of the girls' and boys' uniforms.

"This decision about uniforms accords with the school's respect for gender diversity," principal Shauna Colnan said.

"My message to staff was that as long as the uniform is neat and tidy we don't need to get hung up on what is being worn.

"We are more interested in what is in students' heads": Shauna Colnan.
"We are more interested in what is in students' heads": Shauna Colnan. Photo: Keith Saunders

"We are more interested in what is in students' heads than what combination of uniform they are wearing."

Newtown High School of the Performing Arts adopted a similar policy last year after students lobbied to have "un-inclusive gender labels" removed from uniforms.

The NSW Department of Education lets schools determine their own uniform policies "in consultation with their school communities" as long as they do not breach anti-discrimination laws, but lobby group Girls Uniform Agenda is pushing for it to do more.

"There should be more explicit legislation, the government should spell out that schools should just abolish gender-specific uniforms," the group's co-founder and associate professor of writing at the University of Sydney, Susan Thomas, said.

The South Australian government last year mandated that "students who identify as transgender or intersex should be allowed to choose from the uniform options available at the school", and the Queensland government requires that "student dress codes offer gender neutral uniform options for all students".

"NSW seems much slower to catch on," Associate Professor Thomas said.

"There are so many issues that we know are issues – obesity, kids who are struggling with gender or body image.

"We need to look at how apparel is affecting those things."

Ms Boston said she is also worried about the message gender-specific uniforms send to boys and will look carefully at policies when she next considers schools for her six-year-old son, whose current school only goes to year 3.

"I'm very much about raising my children with the idea of equality and only having skirts and dresses for girls suggests that they're different and more feminine," she said.

"And girls and boys aren't so different at that age."