‘You’re going to school, not out clubbing’

Acceptable teenage attire, or too revealing? imago/Westend61

Revealing summer clothing has sparked the question of whether Swiss schools need dress codes. 

This content was published on June 15, 2018 - 17:00
Jie Guo Zehnder and Susan Misicka,

Earlier this month, a high school in a small town north of the capital, Bern, sent an email advising students on how they should dress for lessons. However, only the girls received the email featuring drawings and photos of “no-gos”External link, like cleavage-baring tops and hot pants. Some girls complained in the local media that they felt discriminated against – especially after discovering that the original no-go graphic had also featured tips for boys on dressing appropriately. 

“It’s a topic that comes up every time the temperature rises,” high school headmaster Barbara Kunz told the newspaper Bernerzeitung on Monday, a week after emailing her female students. Kunz said that she had wanted to make the girls aware of the effect that their appearance might have on others. As her note to the girls pointed out, “Remember, you’re going to school, and not out clubbing or to the beach”. It did not threaten sanctions to enforce a new dress code.

Personal freedom 

“Low-rise jeans, crop-tops and heavy make-up are legally possible,” states LCH, an umbrella group for Swiss teachers, in its position paper on dress codesExternal link (in German). “Clothes are part of a person’s individual self-expression, and therefore fall under the protection of personal freedom. This also applies to children and adolescents.”

Many Swiss girls wear make-up to school. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

However, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. “It is important that an outfit is not provocative, and that it does not offend other students or teachers,” Samuel Rohrbach, director of the Swiss union of French-speaking teachersExternal link (SER), told 

What to tolerate? 

Both teachers’ associations believe that school dress codes could help. However, a binding dress code with clear specifications is neither desirable nor necessary, finds LCH. “Internal information on unrecommendable or inappropriate clothing is sufficient,” states Switzerland’s largest teachers’ association. 

School regulations should be developed through an agreement between specialists, school boards and teachers, says Rohrbach, suggesting that they take a certain margin of tolerance into account. The regulations also need to be clearly worded to facilitate enforcement. 

He adds that open discussions with young people can play a crucial role in this process. For example, a good starting point might be talking about suitable attire for an apprenticeship. 

Headscarves OK 

In Switzerland, headscarves are allowed in schools. Keystone

Over the years, there have also been disagreements over religious attire, such as headscarves. In 2015, Switzerland’s Federal Court dismissed the appeal of a St Gallen school that had wanted to enforce a headscarf ban. The court ruled that headscarves did not interfere with lessons. And in 2017, politicians in canton Valais vetoed a proposed vote on headgear in schools.

In neighbouring France, pupils are not allowed to wear symbols or clothing expressing their religious affiliation.

And school uniforms?

Both teachers’ associations agree that school uniforms are not the solution to the problem of pupils dressing inappropriately.

“The positive effects are too uncertain, the affront to personal freedom would be enormous and the cost of the uniforms is not regulated,” states LCH in its position paper on dress codes. Its French-speaking counterpart, SER, agrees that uniforms are not a practical solution.

In 2006, a school in Basel tested school uniforms on 14- and 15-year-olds. The trial wasn’t a success. Keystone

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