As has now been widely reported, on Friday 12 February 2021 at a school assembly delivered via video to classrooms the Principal of Cheltenham Girls High School in Sydney said:
‘If student’s come in mufti for any reason wearing shorts and tops that are stringy, and skimpy and revealing I will be ringing your parents to send you home. So please don’t do that girls, please don’t spoil it for others, make sure that you adhere to the rules and wear some clothing that covers you properly. Please remember girls that there are men teachers in this school and they don’t want to be looking at that either, don’t compromise their employment because you can’t do the right thing. So girls, just keep this in mind when we do have mufti days.’
If I read this in a book about education practices from the 1960’s I would scoff but learning this was said to the whole cohort of Cheltenham Girls High School students is concerning.
Adherence to a reasonable school dress code is not problematic nor inconsistent with children’s rights. What is inconsistent with children’s rights though is directing girls and young women that their adherence to the dress code is vital so that they ‘don’t compromise’ men’s employment – the basis of this argument being that if girls (some as young as 11) wear ‘skimpy’ clothes this could attract attention from male teachers who would then potentially get into trouble for leering at the girls, and possibly lose their jobs.
Linking what female students wear on non-uniform days to male teacher’s employment security is highly problematic, most of all because it places the onus of responsibility on girls to police their appearance to avoid adult male teacher’s gaze. I would imagine, and hope, that there are many male teachers at the school who are completely appalled at the suggestion that male teachers are ogling female students. There are no problems with a school dress code, and it is completely within the purview of a school principal to police this, but there are problems with asserting that breaches of the school dress code will insight male teachers to leer at young women and then saying that if they did this they could lose their jobs.
The comments from the Principal, who leads over 1260 young women as well as staff, were inconsistent with international standards surrounding children’s rights, particularly girls’ rights, contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which Australia (and the Department of Education as an institution of government) is legally bound to adhere to. The foundational principles of the CRC are that children have the right to freedom from discrimination based on their sex (Article 2) and that public institutions, such as schools, must ensure ‘the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’ (Article 3). The CRC also provides children and young people with the right to express their views about all matters affecting them and have these views listened to and acted upon (Article 12). Importantly, article 29 of the CRC demands that children’s education ‘shall be directed to … The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.’
The key message conveyed to the students seemed not to be focussed on student’s best interests – but rather, was more focussed on student’s being responsible for male teachers’ ‘best interests’ in terms of their employment – which is a peculiar distortion that is inconsistent with student’s responsibilities in educational settings.
Women and girls have long been told to avoid the male gaze for a range of reasons, including not provoking unwanted sexual attention. This comes in many forms: ‘be careful what you wear or you could be assaulted’ or ‘you asked for it because you were wearing revealing clothes’. The problem with this thinking is that it is upside down, is inconsistent with human rights standards and centres the ‘victim’ or ‘potential victims’ as the core solution when the solution is countering systemic sexism and addressing the source of inappropriate behaviour and actions directed toward children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child also provides children with the right to freedom from abuse, exploitation and violence – this includes the objectification of girls and young women’s bodies.
I suspect awareness about children’s and women’s rights is well understood within many parts of the school by students, teachers and the community. The student protests that occurred on Friday at the school demonstrate this. I also suspect that many students are not aware of children’s rights and hearing these messages from the Principal may be absorbed uncontested into girls and young women’s consciousness as another duty they owe society and men.
Indeed, it was through my own education at Cheltenham Girls High School where I first formally learned about women’s rights through the exceptional ‘Legal Studies’ teaching I am so grateful to have received. This experience generated in me the desire to pursue becoming a human rights lawyer and had a transformative impact on my life and career.
There was a groundswell of anger about the Principal’s comments and student’s protested on social media throughout the weekend (and at the school on Friday) about and against the comments that were made. This is a very good sign as protests are often a symptom of the need for change. In response to the outcry the NSW Department of Education responded stating the comments were ‘unfortunate’ and ‘inappropriate’ and promised that the Principal would apologise which she did today by delivering this apology to all students:
‘Good morning girls, I’d like to read a statement for you. Cheltenham Girls High School has a proud history of educating and empowering generations of young women, and I’m privileged to be its Principal and the custodian of this tradition. However, I was wrong in recent comments I made about the student dress code and male staff members. I apologise for those comments which were out of place in relation to the standards I set for myself, the school and the positive development of our students. It was not my intention to target, offend, label, or label the character or behaviour of any students or staff members. However, I recognise and sincerely regret that those comments have caused offence and hurt to students and parents. I do look forward to continuing to work together with students, parents and staff to maintain the high expectations of everyone in the Cheltenham Girls High School community into the future. Thank you girls and I hope you have a lovely day today with the Chinese New Year Celebrations. Thank you.’
This apology, in concert with the Department’s statements, are important first steps in repairing the harm that was done and more importantly to examine and address the context that enabled these comments to be made in the first place. Statements such as the ones made by the Principal last week are not mistakes or accidents. Comments such as these provide insight into people’s core beliefs which are grounded in, and supported by social mores, structures and systems that (in this case) position women and girls as lesser, as objects, as less powerful and as responsible for others.
It is hoped that in the coming weeks the school and the Department of Education will ask and answer a range of questions: is there a need for a cultural shift at the school? Are these comments symptomatic of endemic problems with sexism at the school? Is there a need at the school for more learning about girls’ right to freedom from discrimination and how to adhere to children’s rights standards in education contexts?
An apology is not the end of this story – these events should prompt the NSW Department of Education to take a deep dive into how well high schools are respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights standards under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments (including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). This is also an opportunity for the Principal to extend her understandings of girls’ rights in educational contexts and truly listen to the students who are demanding better … as is their right.