Sun-safe hats aren't being worn by nearly half of Sydney's primary school students, according to a new report commissioned by the NSW Cancer Institution and Cancer Council.
Observers watched 8000 Sydney students in government schools in western Sydney over three months and found that only 60 per cent wore sun-safe hats.
The NSW Department of Education considers Legionnaire, wide-brimmed, and bucket hats to be sun-safe.
Previous data collected by the Cancer Council recorded 80 per cent compliance with sun-safe policies but that was based on self-reporting from principals.
"Whenever you have people self-reporting on behaviour, it's always over-reported," said Dr Dean Dudley, senior lecturer for health and physical education at Macquarie University and the lead author of the new report.
"They were guesses. So when we observe the students objectively, we got a different result."
Dr Dudley said that the hats' designs had to be conducive to play for students to actually wear them.
"If the hats aren't well-ventilated, the kids are going to want to take them off. If the hats are too rigid, they get caught in the wind."
The students praised hats that could be folded up and put in pockets but considered Legionnaire hats to be "daggy".
Girls were 1.6 times more likely than boys to wear no hat at all.
In a fifth of the observed schools, less than 7 per cent of students were wearing sun-safe hats. Many of these schools had students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"We're talking about some of the most impoverished schools in metropolitan Sydney. One school was on lockdown when we were there collecting data," Dr Dudley said.
"When it comes to prioritising what teachers need to enforce at those schools, to be blunt, kids wearing hats isn't going to be the priority."
For other schools, sun-safe hats aren't enough. Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Primary School in Kingsgrove not only adopts a "no hat, no play" policy but has also introduced sunglasses as an optional part of the school uniform.
"A couple of ophthalmologists approached us because they were seeing younger and younger children with damage to their eyes caused by the sun," said Anthony Weir, the school's principal.
The school's glasses, which cost around $70, were developed in collaboration with eye surgeons because quality alternatives all cost hundreds of dollars.
"Just as parents are happy to shell out to make sure their child's always got a hat, they're starting to think about their eyes. If they don't have their eyes for the future, that's a travesty."
The NSW Cancer Institution and Cancer Council have recently approved a new study that will look at increasing the number of students wearing sun-safe hats.
Sun protection is supported through a range of NSW Department of Education policies and guidelines including Sun Safety for Students Guidelines; School Uniforms in NSW Government Schools; Sport Safety Guidelines; and Student Health in NSW Public Schools:
A Department of Education spokesman said "the Sun Safety for Students Guidelines advise that school communities work together to take approaches and actions to protect students from the sun".
"One approach outlined in the guidelines is to implement the Cancer Council NSW SunSmart Primary School program. The department works closely with the Cancer Council NSW which administers the SunSmart program for primary schools."