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Rules About School Uniform, Hair & Body

Rules about school uniform, hair & body

Most schools in NZ require you to wear a uniform while you’re at school or representing school at sport or cultural events etc. Many schools will also have certain restrictions on your appearance; about how hair must look, or what piercings and tattoos you can show on your body.

This section provides information about what rules schools can make about how you look while you’re at school or representing the school.

Do I have to wear a uniform at school?

You must wear the school uniform if your school has uniform rules. If you don’t, you could be breaking school rules and might get in trouble.

Under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 students are entitled to freedom of expression. This means that you can choose how to express yourself through your words and appearance. However, the law is unclear about how this freedom interacts with a school’s power to make rules about uniform.

The courts have said that it is reasonable for a school to make you wear a school uniform, but the uniform rules must be specific, certain, and written down in a policy that has been agreed to by the board of trustees.

What happens if I can’t afford to buy the school uniform?

Most schools understand that uniforms can be a big expense for families.  Some schools have a second-hand clothing shop where uniform items can be purchased at a cheaper price. You can also look on TradeMe, Neighbourly or at op shops for second-hand items.

If your caregivers are getting a benefit through Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ), or are on a low income, they may be able to ask WINZ to help pay for your school uniform.

You will need a letter from your school’s uniform shop saying how much the uniform costs before WINZ can help.

My school says all students have to get the uniform from one supplier and they’re really expensive. Is this allowed?

Probably. However, the law says that schools can’t do things which restrict market competition. If exclusive arrangements with suppliers are pushing prices up and if parents would be better off if more than one supplier was allowed to provide school uniforms, the schools should consider it. Schools have to ensure that any negotiation process with a supplier is transparent, meaning that it should be open for people to ask questions and there should be no secrets or closed-door deals.

Can a teacher send me home if I’m not in the correct uniform?

No, unless you are stood down, suspended, or you attend a private school, and it is a school rule.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be extreme for a state school to send a student home for not wearing the correct uniform, as schools should only stand-down or suspend students as a last resort.

If you’re getting into trouble for wearing the incorrect uniform, and it’s not your fault, your parents may be able to sort things out with the principal or get help from the school counsellor or WINZ.

Can my school make me wear a uniform to and from school? Do I have to wear my uniform on school trips and outings?

If your school provides transport (e.g. by running a school bus) to and from school, you would be under the school’s care and be expected to wear your uniform.

A school can make you wear the uniform during school visits e.g. to an art gallery, as you will be participating as a representative of the school.

A private school can make you wear a uniform to and from school if it says so in the school rules.

I’m Māori – can I wear a taonga at school? Can I dress in a way that is important to my religion, culture, or nationality?

NZ schools must not discriminate against students’ culture or religion. If you wish to dress differently at school for religious or cultural reasons, you should not be discriminated against. However, your school may ask you to provide evidence that there is a genuine cultural or religious reason for you wearing that certain item.

School board of trustees must give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi by having policies and practices that reflect tikanga Māori, mātauranga Māori, and te ao Māori. As part of this requirement, you could argue that you should be able to wear taonga.

I’m a transgender student – can I wear the uniform of the gender I identify with?

Yes. The law says that transgender students must be allowed to have the gender that they identify with recorded in school. The Human Rights Commission suggests that transgender students in New Zealand should be allowed to wear the uniform of the gender that they identify with. Schools are also now encouraged to adopt gender-neutral uniform and provide safe toilets and changing facilities.

There can sometimes be other barriers to this taking place (for example paying for the uniform, and differing views between the school and your family).

You should speak with Rainbow Youth, YouthLaw or the Human Rights Commission if this is the case.

I’m a girl – do I have to wear a skirt or dress?

Schools can have different uniform rules for boys and girls so long as the effect of the rules aren’t discriminatory. For example, if boys must wear pants and girls must wear long skirts, then the girls might argue that this was discriminatory because they’re not given the same amount of physical freedom as the boys. But if the girls were also allowed to wear culottes then the uniform policy would still be different, but the girls’ physical freedom would no longer be different from the boys’. The rules at public and private schools can also be very different. If you are unhappy with the uniform rules, talk to your student representative or the board of trustee representative.

Can my school tell me what to do with my hair while I’m at school?

Everyone has the right to express themselves through their appearance under the Bill of Rights Act.  However, school boards also have the power to make rules about uniforms.

Generally, school uniform rules are enforceable if they are specific, clear, and written.

While your school can tell you that your hair does not meet uniform rules and ask you to cut your hair, they are not allowed to physically cut your hair without your permission or your parents’ permission.

If you choose not to follow the school rule, the school may discipline you.

Can my school stop me from getting a piercing or tattoo?

Schools can’t stop you from getting a piercing or tattoo in your own time (there may be other laws against that though), but they may have rules about what you can and can’t show as part of the uniform during school.

If it is a culturally or religious relevant tattoo or piercing that you want visible, you should check the uniform policy and speak with the school in the first instance.

You can’t be discriminated against for your culture or religion, but you may also be required to provide evidence of the necessity of your tattoo or piercing in accordance with your culture or religion. If not, some students may find that they are asked to cover tattoos and remove piercings during school time.

Can I wear makeup at school?

Some schools have rules about wearing makeup and others don’t. You should check your school rules before wearing makeup at school. Generally, if the rule is certain and specific, the school may be able to discipline you if you break the rule.

As with piercings, tattoos, and hair – makeup can be a form of expression.  However, the law is unclear about whether it is reasonable to limit your right to express yourself through makeup.

Can the school have different hair rules for boys and girls?

School rules aren’t allowed to discriminate based on gender. But they are allowed to have different rules for boys and girls as long as they have good reasons, and they don’t give one gender more rights than the other. E.g if girls are allowed to dye their hair but boys aren’t, this would be discrimination because it gives girls more rights than boys. The rule about hair length, however, might generally be different for boys and girls.

If you’re a transgender student, then the school has to record you as the gender that you identify with. This may mean that you need to follow the rules that apply to the gender you identify with.

How do I know if I’m following the school rules?

School rules have to be clear and certain so that it’s obvious whether you’re following them or not. If you’re not sure what the rules are, ask for a copy from the reception or your dean.

If you don’t know whether you’re following the rule or not because the rule is unclear, then it’s probably NOT an OK rule for the school to have. A judge recently decided a rule saying boys’ hair had to be ‘short’ wasn’t clear enough because ‘short’ could mean different things to different people. The school wasn’t allowed to punish a student for breaking that particular rule because it was unclear.

I disagree with my school’s rules, what can I do?

If you’re unhappy about something, you can talk to the student representative and ask them to raise it with the board of trustees. School rules are made by the board and every board must have a student representative if the school has students above Year 9.

Before you decide to complain about a rule you don’t like, you should think about how important the issue is to you and other students. If it is important, you could write to the board of trustees about why it is appropriate for them to consult with students before they make rules about uniform.

If you choose to break a school rule, you may get a detention or be put on daily report if it’s a minor breach. For repeated or serious instances, you could be stood down or suspended.

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