Wellington, June 26, 2022
Secondary school students will be able to wear their cultural and religious taonga with pride, thanks to the first-ever official school uniform guidelines from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.
The non-prescriptive guidelines, which have been endorsed by the Department for Education, are the result of Labor Ethnic Caucus MP Ingrid Leary’s advocacy for proactive advice to schools, following several cases in her Taieri constituency involving school uniforms and grooming protocols.
“These cases involving cornbraid hairstyles and wearing the hijab made me realize that students have a different experience of cultural or gender safety, depending on the school they attend. There was generally no guidance to boards on what is considered extreme, and no safety around taonga such as tā moko, tatau, and expressions of religious commitment such as Christian crosses,” said she declared.
Gender binary uniforms
According to Ms. Leary, students do not need to understand the importance of the hijab and other cultural and religious attire.
“I wanted to find out what gender-diverse students thought about wearing binary uniforms and whether school uniform requirements helped or hindered their learning,” she said.
Along with her Labor colleague, Vice-President Adrian Rurawhe, Ms Leary organized a panel discussion on school uniforms moderated by the Human Rights Commission and Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon.
They invited students from six high schools in the greater Wellington area to share their experiences and views on school uniforms and grooming protocols. Affordability (which came up in discussions) was beyond the scope of the discussion, with MPs keen to focus on issues related to diversity and safety.
Human Rights Commission Guidelines
The HRC guidelines that evolved from these discussions and other extensive research state that they are “non-binding guidance on school uniform policies from a Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights perspective.” man “.
The guidelines note that many schools have uniforms and they can be “a great way to distinguish students and instill a sense of community and pride in their school.”
The guidelines say school uniforms can also help reduce peer bullying based on clothing and appearance. It is therefore important that students can assert their rights while fulfilling their responsibilities to wear the school uniform.
Inclusive uniform policies help improve students’ mental health and well-being by “enabling them to feel that their whole being is recognized and respected.”
Guidelines include (a) Allowing Maori students to wear items that are taonga to them, such as tā moko, pounamu or hei tiki (b) Taonga may include Maori hairstyles and lengths, so schools should not impose traditional Western standards to 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 offering gender-neutral 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 badges that represent hatred, such as the swastika or Confederate flag-type memorabilia.
Schools always have the right to establish their own uniform rules; however, they are advised to consult with students, parents and staff and ensure that the school is a physically and emotionally safe place for all who attend.
Schools must also recognize Te Tiriti o Waitangi and relevant student rights in the Education and Training Act, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act.
Ms Leary said her teenage son had struggled with ethnic profiling and one-size-fits-all policies that failed to assert his identity, which made her sensitive to the experience of students who do not fit so-called traditional norms .
“Recently a teacher from a school in Dunedin came up to me at an event to tell me that they no longer require their students to hide their pounamu and crucifix necklaces under their shirts. It really meant a lot to me as a crucial step in the work we need to do to keep schools safe for all students in New Zealand,” Ms Leary said.