New look: the uniforms on display on the college's website.

New look: the uniforms on display on the college's website.

On Jacqui Beaman's first day at "Sandy," as Sandringham College is affectionately known, an openly gay student with acrylic nails and a Lady Gaga jumper walked her to class.

“He was telling me how wonderful it was that he could wear casual clothes and he felt able to express himself in that way,” Jacqui, now in year 12, says.  

For Jacqui, and many other current and former students, the casual dress policy at Sandringham’s senior campus is a fundamental part of the young-adult learning environment that makes the school unique.

Not happy: students and ex-students Lucy Wohnsdorf, Sian Neale, Jacqui Beaman and Jacob Dillon.

Not happy: students and ex-students Lucy Wohnsdorf, Sian Neale, Jacqui Beaman and Jakob Dillon. Photo: Penny Stephens

They say it is synonymous with the culture of Sandy, where students are encouraged to be individuals, teachers are addressed by their first names and no one is shut down for having an opinion.

“Everyone’s able to find their own niche at this school,” says year 11 student Lucy Wohnsdorf. “I used to go to another school and everyone was very much pressured to conform and look the same.”

So when principal Allen McAuliffe announced last month a formal uniform would be introduced in years 7 to 11 and a dress code in year 12, there was an uproar.

Within days the Facebook page Say No to Uniforms at Sandringham College Senior campus has accrued more than 1000 “likes” and a petition on change.org by former student Courtney Waters has 750 signatures.

In a letter to the school council president, signed by 26 staff from the senior campus, teacher Robert Neale argued that a uniform was “a device that is primarily designed to de-humanise”.

He said this was in direct contradiction to the philosophy of US researcher and educator George Otero, who said that schools should be about the humans within them and the relationships between these people.

“It’s no coincidence that our Celebration Days at Sandringham are generally peaceful, very different from the cathartic affairs we often see at other schools,” Mr Neale wrote.

“The logic is simple - give people fewer things to rebel against and treat them like adults and they won’t feel the need to let off steam in anti-social ways at the end of the year.”

Sandringham College became a three campus school in the late 1980s after a merger between Beaumaris, Highett, and Hampton high schools and Sandringham Technical School.

The school’s famed performing arts and music programs attract students from all over Melbourne, with alumni including playwright and actor Tobias Manderson-Galvin, singer Stella Angelico, The Voice contestant Harrison Craig, and actor Damien Brodie.

But in recent years the run-down Beaumaris campus has haemorrhaged students, sparking a community campaign to turn the campus into a stand-alone 7 to 12 school.

In a letter to parents, Mr McAuliffe said Sandringham College was a “dynamic, vibrant place”, involved in programs such as the World Challenge and overseas trips to its sister school in Britain, Springwood High.

He said it had  “amazing” dance performances and its arts programs were recognised state-wide.

The school would also introduce a select-entry program for academically gifted students in 2015.

However Mr McAuliffe said the lack of uniforms was raised on many occasions during consultations on the school’s future direction.

“In every [local] primary school the lack of uniform on the senior campus and the style of uniform for 7-10 was a constant theme in discussions,” Mr McAuliffe wrote. “It has been incumbent on us to work through this matter.”

Mr McAuliffe told Fairfax Media that the school “absolutely” listened to the feedback of students. He said the majority supported a new uniform  for years 7 to 10 and a review of the dress code for the senior campus.

He said an updated uniform policy will not change the school’s emphasis on individuality, creativity and maturity.

“The young adult environment we believe will be enhanced. Teachers will still be on a first-name basis - my name will still be Allen - the relationships will still be the same. We think that the changes we are making are all for the positive.”

Last month the school council voted to move away from polo shirts and windcheaters in years 7 to 10 and introduce a blazer and tie. From 2016, year 11 students will also be required to wear the uniform. A dress code will apply for year 12 students, with a review at the end of 2016 to decide whether they too should wear the uniform.

“It was clear to council that this step needed to be taken if the overall college was going to be in tune with community expectations,” Mr McAuliffe wrote to parents.

But year 12 student Jakob Dillon says there are plenty of private schools in the area, including Mentone Grammar, Haileybury, Kilbreda College and St Bede’s College, for those who want blazers and ties.

He argues that Sandringham College provides an alternative and it will lose its market advantage if it mimics what private schools do.

“Sandringham has a very different purpose and they are trying to throw that away to move into a market that is already saturated.”

The special culture at Sandringham College comes up again and again on the Facebook page.

Former student Tahnee Brotherton, who commuted from Pakenham every day, says the school was the answer to her prayers.

“Sandy is a place to celebrate your individuality and we shouldn’t destroy this nurturing environment by turning it into every other school,” she writes.

“I feel uniforms would be the beginning of ruining this unique school.”

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