Student Rights

Free legal help for students, parents & caregivers

Uniforms and appearance

If my school has a uniform, do I have to wear it?

Education Act 1989, s 72
New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 14

Most New Zealand secondary schools, and some primary and intermediate schools, have rules requiring students to wear a school uniform. This comes under a school board’s powers to make any rules it thinks are “necessary or desirable for the control and management of the school”.

Technically, a school uniform rule won’t be legally enforceable if it breaches students’ rights of freedom of expression under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. However, the New Zealand courts would probably see most school uniform codes as being a reasonable and allowable restriction on a student’s right to freedom of expression.

Can I be punished for not wearing the uniform?

This would depend on the particular case.

You shouldn’t be punished if your parents or caregivers can’t afford to buy a uniform. Parents should talk to the school, which may have second-hand uniforms that can be bought cheaply. Parents who are on a low income or benefit may be able to get financial help from Work and Income.

Education Act 1989, s 14

However, if you simply refuse to wear a uniform, the school could:

Can I be sent home for not wearing the correct uniform?

Education Act 1989, s 14
Education (Stand-Down, Suspension, Exclusion, and Expulsion) Rules 1999, rule 8

You can only be sent home if you’ve been formally stood down or suspended.

Can students wear items of cultural or religious significance?

Yes. It’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or national or ethnic origin, and so, for example, the Human Rights Commission has upheld the right of Māori students to wear taonga at school, despite uniform codes that ban jewellery.

Schools can ask, however, that students provide a genuine reason for wanting to wear items of cultural and religious significance.

Are schools allowed to have different uniforms for males and females?

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 19 (state schools)
Human Rights Act 1993, s 21 (private schools)

Although it’s illegal for schools to treat students differently on the basis of gender, this probably doesn’t prevent different school uniform codes for male and female students.

In one case (from 1991) the Human Rights Commission agreed with a complaint by two female-identified students who claimed that the school requirement to wear a skirt disadvantaged them because it restricted their activities and therefore it amounted to discrimination on gender grounds. This particular case was settled by the school agreeing to change its uniform so that female students could choose to wear “culottes” (shorts that look like skirts). This case shows that the current law is probably that schools can have different uniforms for male and females, but that the particular uniforms can’t disadvantage one gender or any other particular group.

Can transgender students choose which uniform they wear?

Human Rights Commission, Supporting Trans Students, www.hrc.co.nz

The Human Rights Commission has said that transgender students should be able to wear the uniform that matches their gender identity. The Ministry of Education has suggested that schools consider offering a gender-neutral option when uniforms come up for review.

ee page 37 for more about “Transgender, agender, non-binary and gender non-conforming students”

Can schools order boys to cut their hair?

Edwards v Onehunga High School Board [1974] 2 NZLR 238 (CA)
New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 14
Battison v Melloy [2014] NZHC 1462

The law here isn’t clear. In the 1970s, the Court of Appeal upheld a school’s right to enforce rules about hair. However that decision is now more than 40 years old, and it was made before the Bill of Rights was passed, protecting the right of freedom of expression.

In a 2014 High Court decision (Battison v Melloy), the judge found that the particular hair rule in this case wasn’t legally enforceable because it wasn’t certain enough. In this case, the school board had agreed with the principal’s decision that the hair rule had been broken. However, the judge disagreed with the board’s decision because the board hadn’t independently considered whether the student’s offer to wear his hair in a bun amounted to effective compliance with the rule (which didn’t specifically say that a student’s hair had to be cut short).

The judge in Battison v Melloy said that schools should carefully consider whether a proposed hair rule would breach students’ rights to autonomy and individual dignity, and their right to freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights. The judge said that it would be unlawful to make a rule which gave the principal complete discretion to decide whether a student’s dress and appearance was acceptable.

There will also be exceptions for students who can show that they have a genuine reason for keeping their hair long. For example, hair length has religious significance for Sikhs and cultural significance for Rastafarians. A student’s personal preference would not suffice as an acceptable reason.

Challenging a rule about uniform or appearance

While schools have the right to make rules, students and parents who are unhappy about a particular rule should ask the school why the rule exists – is it, for example, for safety reasons? You should think about these questions:

Sometimes schools and families can become hardened in positions they’ve taken about an issue. There are sometimes no easy answers. If you’ve carefully thought about the issue and want to pursue it further, you can contact one of the agencies listed at the back of this booklet (see “Useful contacts”).