Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Schools policing uniforms and hair lengths

There has been quite a bit in the NZ news in the last few weeks about this topic. It arose because a school in Rotorua sought to impose new rules about hair length on its students, sending a senior (Lucan Battison) home (for a considerable length of time) who would not comply. It went to the High Court to resolve - in the student's favour, of course, because the school rule contravened a human right. This ruling has ramifications across all New Zealand schools. The Waikato Times on Saturday July 5 2014 ran a full page article about this, examining various schools' websites for information on uniform rules, as well as seeking comment from principals. Unfortunately, I've been unable to find an online version of the same article.

The whole debacle reminds me of my own schooling last century. I used to have long hair up until I was in year 11 (we called it fifth form), which I would wear a variety of ways. On the day of a 'Girls' Assembly' - held with annoying regularity to police us into knowing our place as girls - the focus was Hair. Various senior female staff members trawled the rows of girls in the hall, and indicated which girls had to leave these ranks and follow staff members to the stage. I was one of them. One by one we were paraded to the entire assembly, and our hair transgressions were explained. Mine? That day, my hair was tied up in two high pigtails above my ears. My crime with this hairdo? It would interfere with me being able to do work at my desk, because my hair would fall forward as I bent to study. This was received with disbelief, going by the murmurs from the assembled girls. I was outraged.

I tell this story because it was one of those occasions which form who you become. Of course it was ridiculous - my 'crime' suggested I had no agency and was slave to what my hair would do. As if! From that day, I did my best to wear my hair in as many of the offending styles as I could remember. My rebellious streak was truly fired up, and so I resisted their edict as much as I could.

This episode also came flooding back when Lucan Battison's case was publicised. It's been 40 years since my experience. Have school leaders learned nothing? Conformity, control and authority appear to be dominant discourses in some schools, particularly where new principals want to make their mark, and in so doing, squash attempts by students to flex their identity-forming rite of passage as a teenager. This was a monumental error of judgement by that principal. Was there an educational principle that drove this decision? I've no idea and cannot imagine that there was one. To me, viewing this from the outside, it was about power and control. Nothing more, nothing less.

I taught in secondary schools for over 20 years before becoming a teacher educator. If the core business of schools is learning and achievement, what does the persistent thrust of regulating hair and body say about what students learn? What do they come to understand what matters in their school?

Policing students' bodies is slippery territory. The markers of boy/girl are inscribed on these bodies - generally speaking, in secondary schools at least, boys must wear shirts, long or short pants. Girls must wear skirts. For students whose identity doesn't match their gender, what then? And what if the uniform shape doesn't suit some body shapes? Are some students doomed to frump in colours, shapes and designs that do nothing for their esteem?

When my daughter went to Intermediate school, she had to, for the first time, wear a uniform. As a girl, she now had to wear a skirt or dress. Within a day or two, she began wearing her physical education shorts underneath, because otherwise she didn't want to climb on the jungle gym, or do any of the other things she had freely done when at primary school, where, most of the time, she was most comfortable wearing trousers; she was not a dress kind of girl. Instead, by being forced to wear a dress/skirt, she was learning about effects of The Gaze. As a result, she began limiting what kind of physical activity she engaged in, or took steps to make herself feel safe to do so, to avoid boys making comments about seeing her underwear if she played on the climbing bars.

Such is the tyranny of a school uniform.  Instead of helping students focus on striving to be the best they can be and learn as as much as they can, conformity and the suppression of identity appears more important in some contexts. Discipline and punish, squash and suppress. Foucault eloquently argued the trajectory of discipline moving from a public spectacle of disciplining the body, to being inscribed on the body. That is what uniforms do. This discipline controls what the body does in a constant way. It is the exercise of power over, regulating the space, time, movement, and look of that body. The principal of that Rotorua school was exercising this kind of power.

If schools want uniforms, I think they need to answer the following question: Whose interests does a uniform serve? An argument in New Zealand is that it is a socio-economic leveller, but it is perfectly obvious who is well-to-do and who isn't in a school uniform. Another argument I hear often is that it helps build school community and identity. Really? As one principal noted in the Waikato Times' article, a uniform is a way of "identifying ourselves". To be fair, this principal was talking about sports uniforms, not a school uniform, but this is about a school being able to claim its students. Where is the community in that? It sounds like an exertion of power to me. Another principal in the same article argued two important things: that a school uniform "maintains a sense of pride and identity...[and] an aspect of management...".

I could go on, but Dianne and I promised each other not to have posts that were too long. I am really interested in anyone's take on this question. It seldom gets debated. So - please feel free to add a comment.

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