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Discipline and rules

Uniforms and appearance

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

Education and Training Act 2020, s 126 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 the school board’s powers to make rules.

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

Can I be punished for not wearing school uniform?

This would depend on the situation.

You shouldn’t be punished if your whānau can’t afford to buy a uniform. Parents and whānau should talk to the school if this is the situation – the school may have second-hand uniforms that cost less. Whānau who are on a low income or benefit may be able to get financial help from Work and Income.

Education and Training Act 2020, s 80

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

  • give you a warning
  • give you a detention or extra duties
  • stand you down or suspend you for continual disobedience, if you’ve already had a number of warnings.

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

Education and Training Act 2020, s 80 Education (Stand-Down, Suspension, Exclusion, and Expulsion) Rules 1999, rule 8

No. You can only be sent home if you’ve been formally stood down or suspended. You can be stood down or suspended for not wearing the correct uniform if you continually refuse to wear uniform and you’ve been warned a number of times.

Can I wear an item of cultural or religious significance at school?

Human Rights Act 1993, s 21

Yes. It’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or national or ethnic origin. For example, Māori students can wear taonga at school, despite uniform codes that ban jewellery.

Schools can ask you to provide a genuine reason for wanting to wear items of cultural and religious significance.

Are schools allowed to have different uniforms for different genders?

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 because of their gender, schools can have different uniform rules for different genders so long as the effect of the rules aren’t discriminatory.

For example, if boys must wear pants and girls must wear long skirts, then the girls might argue that this was discriminatory because they’re not given the same amount of physical freedom as the boys. But if the girls were also allowed to wear culottes then the uniform policy would still be different, but the girls’ physical freedom would no longer be different from the boys’.

The rules at public and private schools can also be very different. If you are unhappy with the uniform rules, talk to your student representative or the board of trustee representative. For more information about your rights and school uniforms, see YouthLaw’s: “Rules about school uniform, hair, body“.

Can my school make me cut my hair?

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

The law here isn’t clear. There are definite exceptions for students who can show that they have a genuine reason not to follow the uniform code. For example, hair length has religious significance for Sikhs and cultural significance for Rastafarians. But personal preference would not be treated as an acceptable reason.

In the 1970s, the Court of Appeal upheld a school’s right to enforce rules about hair generally. However, that decision is now more than 40 years old, and it was made before the Bill of Rights was passed (which protects the right of freedom of expression).

In a 2014 High Court decision (Battison v Melloy), the judge found that a hair rule wasn’t legally enforceable because the rule wasn’t clear enough. So if your school has rules about hair, they need to be specific.

The judge in Battison v Melloy also 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.
  • It would be against the law to make a rule which gives the principal complete discretion to decide whether a student’s dress and appearance is acceptable.

How to challenge a rule about uniform or appearance

If you’re unhappy about a particular rule, ask the school why the rule exists – is it, for example, for safety reasons?

To help you define why the rule should be challenged, you could think about these questions:

  • Why is the issue important? For example, are religious or cultural values involved?
  • What are the possible consequences of challenging the rule? Time? Stress?

If you’ve carefully thought about the issue and want to pursue it, you could also contact one of the agencies listed at the back of this guide. See “Where to go for more support” at the end of this guide

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Discipline and rules

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