Calls for secondary schools to improve student sun protection safety strategies

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Samantha McNulty says she is glad to see the end of summer.

“Whenever it’s a super hot day, I find myself sitting at my computer, wondering if Ellie is in the shade at school.”

And she had good reason to worry.

“I’ve already had a pre-cancerous lesion taken off the back of my hand – before I was 50 – and I’ve got another one about to be cut away from the back of my neck,” she told EducationDaily.

- Advertisement -

“Ellie’s got my freckly skin and it freaks me out if I think about her outside every lunchtime. They got rid of some of the trees around the boundary of the oval last year, because they were worried about branches falling, but I’m more worried about the sun damage and the long-term implications of being in the sun every day without covering herself up.”

Sun safety education ends in primary school

After a late 1980s adolescence spent “baking on the school oval”, Ms McNulty says she used to think how happy she was that her child’s primary school sun protection safety policy was strict – and that she could rest assured knowing her daughter’s skin would be covered up during outdoor time at recess and lunch, thanks to the ‘no hat, no play’ rules that she says “teachers enforced with vigour”.

But in the suburban Melbourne high school grounds her daughter now attends as a Year nine student, things are very different.

Ms McNulty told EducationDaily that, on hot, sunny weekends, getting her 14-year-old to wear a hat – “and plenty of sunscreen” is easy. But in the schoolyard, when a cap is part of the uniform but “nobody wants to look like the only worry wart wearing it”, she says her daughter swaps her common sense for the feeling of “fitting in”.

- Advertisement -

Victorian high school makes hats compulsory

She has welcomed the news that another Victorian school – Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College in regional Geelong – has recently introduced a new policy that has made hats compulsory for all students during sport or PE, on excursions, and during recess and lunchtime whenever the UV rating is reported as three or above.

The high school’s new policy was developed in consultation with students, the school council and Cancer Council Victoria following a review of all school policies last year – making it one of the state’s first public high schools to mandate the wearing of hats.

Ms McNulty says she hopes her daughter’s school follows the lead set by the Geelong school before the final term this year – before her concerns about her daughter’s unprotected exposure to summer sun adds to what she describes as her “usual parenting worries”.

At Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College, students have been given two terms to adjust to the new rules, which also extend to staff. In late 2024, penalties – including detention for students – will apply to those who don’t wear their hats during the designated times.

Acting principal Damien Toussaint said the gap in sun-safe education became blindingly obvious on his drive home from work, when he noticed the plethora of primary school students still wearing hats.

- Advertisement -

The Victorian Education Department’s sun and UV protection policy states that schools have a duty of care to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to minimise risks from exposure to UV.

It also states that schools are advised to support both students and staff to use a combination of sun-protection measures – including hats – when UV index levels are three or above.

Wishing teenagers comply to sun protection recommendations is not enough

But while primary schools in the state enforce a no hat, no-play policy from mid-August to the end of April, secondary schools simply recommend their teenage students comply.

Mr Toussaint says he believes stronger guidance on enforcement from the government is overdue – especially with global warming warnings and the prevalent tanning culture among Australian teenagers.

For Ms McNulty, the principal’s bold stance has motivated a mini-movement within a parenting ‘What’s app’ group she is part of, with the many mums and dads she interacts with in the group vowing to send emails to their respective schools and push for the same change Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College has taken such decisive action on.

- Advertisement -

“Life is long – I hope – and I just want her to be health and happy in her future,” she told EducationDaily about her concern for her daughter’s well-being.

“Having the school lay down the law about wearing a hat might seem like a hassle to her and her friends, but for us parents it’s a relief – and one less fight we have to keep having.”

Share This Article
Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]