It was recently reported that the mother of an 11-year-old boy had asked Auckland Grammar to consider relaxing its rules on hairstyles.
The woman had hoped that in 2019 she could send her son to this well regarded school but his long hair does not meet the requirement that it "should be no shorter than a number 2 and should not be long enough to be tied up in any form".
Unsurprisingly, the school responded that there will be no rule change. "My advice to them would be to choose another school," said the headmaster. I actually thought good on the mother for planning ahead and giving herself plenty of time to find a school that would suit her son. And, similarly, good on the school for adhering to its long-established standards.
But the incident raised some interesting issues about school rules, conformity and gender stereotypes.
It's good that different schools have different rules
In the same way that some people believe students should have the right to wear their hair however they choose at school, I believe that schools should have the right to uphold whatever rules they deem appropriate. Accordingly, some institutions will have strict guidelines about hair while others will have a far more relaxed approach to hairstyles.
Auckland Grammar is a single-sex school, has a uniform, a precise set of rules and a no-nonsense approach to education so it's understandable that it has unwavering attitudes towards hair. On the other hand, there are schools that are co-ed, where students wear mufti and where hair diversity is welcome.
Different schools suit different students, different families and different situations. Diversity in the way schools operate should be regarded as a positive thing. It gives parents and students the ability to choose a school that best fits their style. It's hypocritical of people who celebrate diversity and nonconformity in students to then wish that schools homogenously adopt the same approach.
Constancy is a prized attribute at some schools
Auckland Grammar has a reputation as a very fine school. Many people would attribute a significant part of its success to the fact it has high standards and demands its students abide by a set of clearly defined rules regarding both conduct and appearance. So it's interesting when a woman who has such a high opinion of the school that she'd like her son to attend sets about attempting to dismantle some of the foundations upon which it operates.
Surely seeking to overturn such long-established principles is to risk undermining the school's belief system and guiding values - not to mention earning the ire of existing parents, students and other stakeholders. I would have thought that an element of Auckland Grammar's appeal lies in its consistency and commitment to its ethos. If it tweaked its rules to suit every prospective pupil then it wouldn't be the school it is today.
Gender stereotypes can be complicated
As one member on a Trade Me message board pointed out, gender stereotyping often forms the basis for school rules about hairstyles: "People need to look beyond the fact that this hair thing is a 'rule' and examine what informs it. Boys look like this, girls look like that. Boys act like this, girls act like that. This is the stuff we need to get rid of." True.
I was guilty of gender stereotyping on Sunday while out at an equestrian competition. When I saw a small child in a pair of gumboots featuring a cute camouflage-style print, I was like: "Me wanty". (The gumboots, not the kid, obvs.)
The child had a mass of long, curly hair; half of it was loosely tied back in a pony-tail. I asked the accompanying woman where "the little girl's" gumboots came from. The woman replied: "Little boy. He's a boy." Awkward.
I blame an online article I read less than a month ago for my faux pas. Entitled How to Find Out a Person's Gender: 9 Steps (with Pictures), it misled me totally. The first four steps pointed out that making assumptions about a person's gender based on a person's name, choice of bathroom, hobbies ("Some women love dirt biking, and some guys sing along to Disney movies") or anatomy was fraught with danger. So far so PC.
But step five said this: "Observe their hairstyle. Sometimes you can tell from the hairstyle the probable gender of the person ... If they have pigtails or a pony-tail ... they're probably a lady." I noted the uncertainty of the language too late to avoid gumboot-gate. Thanks for nothing, WikiHow.
Some schools shun gender stereotypes
Dunedin Normal Intermediate has sought to iron out the discrepancies between the genders by introducing uniform options that are as "gender neutral as possible". No longer is it shorts or trousers for boys and skirts or dresses for girls. Now all students can choose between shorts, long pants, culottes and kilts. It sounds so progressive, so modern ... that is: until you see the pricelist. Shorts are $50. Long pants and culottes are $60 a piece. But, each kilt costs $135. Is that a) elitist, b) sexist, c) gender-un-neutral, d) anti-Scottish? Or, e) all of the above?