HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: A row about schools, mullets and a very slippery slope.

I have been trying to cut my son's hair for four months.

If that gives an image of me literally chasing him around the house with scissors, you've nailed it. 

Weeks and months of trying to drag him into a hairdresser got me nowhere but mopping up meltdowns in shopping centres. He agreed to me trimming his fringe with the kitchen scissors at the start of term one, so that he could, you know, see. But since then, the mop has gone untouched and things are looking messy.

If my son sounds like a brat, that's on you. My boy is funny and kind and clever. He's also neurodiverse (I can hear you rolling your eyes, but here we are) and very specific. And he really, really doesn't want a haircut. Like many a parent before me I have arrived at: What's price sanity? The cost of a few of scathing looks and a lot of conditioner, apparently.


My boy also has very particular ideas about clothes. Shirts are always back to front. Comfort is paramount. If he spills something down his (white!) school shirt in the morning, the effort to get him to change is herculean. If it's a bad day, we don't bother. He wears through the knees of long pants at an alarming rate by scooting about on floors. He scuffs up his have-to-be-laceless shoes in weeks by walking on his toes.

Are you getting the picture? My boy is scruffy. He looks lived-in.

Luckily, he goes to a school where they are not insisting on hair above the ears, blazers and ties and shiny shoes. He goes to a school where yes, there's a uniform, but it's a polo shirt and pants and whatever black shoes you like. He goes to a school where "infringements" about appearance are not commonplace.

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This is not the case at the independent school in Sydney's east that is all over everywhere this week because it banned a haircut.


In actual fact, what Waverley College did was to reiterate the list of banned hairstyles for its boys, year five and above. And to add one: The mullet. The school sent a message home to parents that said any boy arriving at school with one would get it cut off there and then, at a charge of $20 to the parents. 

Here's the full hair 'policy': Hair should be neatly cut, combed and maintained. Hair should be shorter than the collar. Long hair and outlandish styles are not acceptable. Undercut styles, dramatic layering, tracks, mohawks, overuse of product, tinting, colouring, dreadlocks, strands of hair, buns, braids or lines are not acceptable. 

Whether or not you blink at that will likely depend on how you view the role of schools in a child's life. 

If, like me, you went to a pretty ordinary school where the priority was to (checks notes) teach you things, you'll be baffled about this excessive interest in how much product an adolescent boy puts in their hair.

If you went to a school that considers itself more of a cultural institution, one that is as much about imparting a certain set of values or beliefs as teaching you things, then you might understand that hair is never just hair. Rules about mullets, like rules about make-up, skirt lengths and tucked-in shirts are actually rules about rules themselves. Learn to follow them, because that's what life is like. 

Or, maybe, you think that mullets, like binge-drinking and 'casual' racism, are signifiers of a kind of regressive Australia that should have been left in the 1980s, and no amount of hipster re-branding is going to change your mind. They are low-rent haircuts, and they don't belong at a high-class school. 


All of these opinions have been expressed this week, in conversations about this policy. Is it about class? Is it about control? Or is it just about a very ugly haircut?

Image: Getty

I want to believe that hair is just hair. That young people will try on different versions of themselves over time, and experiment with fashions – yes, including ugly ones – and choose to express their taste and tribe and identity through their external appearance and it changes nothing. That, to be trite, it's what's inside the head, not what's on top of it, that counts. 


I also want to believe that schools have bigger fish to fry. That any child excluded from education because of an errant rat's tail or an untucked shirt is a travesty. That wasting educators' time on upholding arbitrary standards about appearance is not helpful, when we already expect so much from overstretched and underpaid teachers

And that not all kids are easy to fit into a square hole of neatness and it doesn't mean they are bad kids. 

But it's also been pointed out this week – by teachers, by parents, by many – that this view is idealism. That kids need to understand that discipline can be uncomfortable but is essential to a happy, useful life. That the idea that hair is only hair is a wilful blindness, disproven across history and cultures. And also that how we look tells people who we are: A kid determined to walk his mullet into class is a kid who will think they are The Boss. 

It's fascinating to see a debate develop from the prospect of an amputated mullet and spin-off into the "problem with young people today" – that kids are not learning the importance of rules and boundaries and they absolutely need to. 

Yes, of course they do. But is it unquestionably right that haircuts and mascara-bans are the logical place to introduce those lessons? Might it not be possible to teach boundaries with less superficial rules – around phone use, for example, or respectful conduct, or... completing your schoolwork to the best of your ability, even if you'd really rather be scrolling on TikTok?

The place this flurry of clipped hair lands, of course, is that in Australia, we believe passionately in educational choice. That if you like rules about uniforms and haircuts, there's a school for you. And if you don't, there's one for you, too.


Which might be true on paper, but is an illusion for the majority of Australians, whose school "choices" are more about affordability, proximity and access, rather than values and approval of the small print of policy.

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Back at my house, I get it. On the rare occasions that my son's hair is trimmed short, he looks like a different person. He looks like someone who might listen to me. Like someone who might not be in constant motion, but may actually sit still. Someone who doesn't scoot around on his knees, or murder shoes within hours. He looks efficient and hygienic and organised. 

But, the thing is, he never is. He's still his chaotic self, but with short hair and fewer judgemental looks. 

We are working hard on him getting a haircut before term starts again next week. So far, he has agreed to another "at-home" trim, as long as I promise to leave it long at the back. 

Uh-oh, that sounds a lot like a...

Image: Getty. 

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