Girls in shorts at Barker College

Girls at Barker College in Sydney are now permitted to wear shorts as part of their school uniform.

February 2019

‘They love them’: the shorts dilemma facing private schools

By Jordan Baker

During a visit to an interstate school, one comment stopped Barker headmaster Phillip Heath in his tracks. “One of the girls said to me, ‘I love to play chasings, and I can’t in this dress’. It was because the dress was too narrow in the knees.”

In 20 years, no-one had asked the girls what they thought of their uniform, and they’d become resigned to it. “I don’t want that [at Barker],” Mr Heath said. “If a girl wants to play chasings, no garment from the school will prevent that.”

After a change to uniform policy last year, NSW public schools are now required to offer shorts and trouser options to girls. But the edict doesn’t cover private schools, and many in Sydney are reluctant to follow suit.

For most, the tradition is the stumbling block; any proposal to change a uniform sparks passion from alumni, students and parents. “You dissatisfy everybody, that’s one of the reasons why … it’s easier to leave them alone,” Mr Heath said.

As pressure grows, some are considering a change. Barker introduced shorts this year. Ravenswood will consult its students this term. MLC has changed uniform suppliers to allow it to “look at the direction for our uniform in the future”.

Yet many private girls’ schools did not answer the Herald’s query or said they had no plans for pants. Presbyterian Ladies College said it would continue to offer shorts only as part of its sports uniform due to tradition and the school’s “rich Scottish heritage”.

Alison Boston from the Girls’ Uniform Agenda said schools should prioritise girls’ comfort over tradition. “You can’t say that the rights of girls are less important,” she said.

“We certainly don’t advocate for removing dresses or skirts, if that’s not what the girls want. But it’s about having schools represent society. In society, woman can choose from shorts, dresses, pants, to suit what they are doing.”

When Barker College began its transition from a boys’-only school to co-ed in its junior ranks (it has long had female students in its senior school), it took the opportunity to review the uniform.

Mr Heath called in designer Jonathan Ward, who has created uniforms for Loreto Kirribilli, Meriden and St Andrews Cathedral school, among others, and began a two-year process of consultation.

He wanted a a uniform that combines tradition with a “level of formality that is still comfortable,” and allows young men and women to “express their identity without gender intruding unhelpfully and emphatically”.

A committee consulted students, alumni, parents (future and present), and neighbours. It laid out patterns on floors, tested samples on students, explored fabric weights and tried out different layering options.

“For every ten people, there were 15 opinions, and those opinions would change,” said Mr Heath.

It also discovered 22 different shades of red in existing uniforms and accessories, which it narrowed down to two.

Finally, it came up with a uniform incorporates the traditional Barker stripe into a uniform that uses a modern design, with “trans-seasonal” layering options, as well as trouser and shorts options for junior girls who want them.

From next year, pants will be offered to senior girls as well. “The girls were extremely eager that we introduced pants and short options,” said Mr Heath.

“They didn’t commit to always wearing those things, but they wanted the choice, and I’m all for it.”

When Mr Ward began designing uniforms 20 years ago, girls did not embrace pants on the rare occasions they had the option. But these days, “they love them,” he said.

“It’s so important for these kids to feel comfortable, and feel they have some choice.”

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