Hair discrimination in school
Hairstyles have long been the subject of contention between pupils, their parents and schools.
Back in the early 2000’s there were various news stories about schools excluding pupils for having the same hairstyle as David Beckham (who can forget the “mini-mohawk” or the “Beckham braids”?).
The issue was highlighted again in February this year when The Urswick School hit the news for sending home a pupil for her afro hairstyle. The school claimed that the pupil’s hairstyle restricted other pupils from seeing the board, whilst the pupil claimed that the school had racially discriminated against her. The school reached an out of court settlement with the girl for £8,500.
In 2018, we saw the story of a boys’ secondary school which placed a child in isolation for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. In this case the boy’s mother was Rastafarian and the boy (through his mother) claimed that the school had acted discriminatorily – again on the basis of race. This was also settled out of court.
Whilst neither of the above cases change the way in which schools should be applying the law, it is a good opportunity for schools to remind themselves of the existing guidance on this issue. G v Head Teacher and Governors of St Gregory's Catholic Science College  EWHC 1452 (Admin) is a good place to start. The pupil in this case was an African-Caribbean boy who hadn’t cut his hair since birth and wore it in cornrows. However, the school had a policy which required all boys to have a “short back and sides” and it refused the boy admission unless he conformed to the policy.
The school argued that if it permitted one pupil to have cornrows then it would effectively “open the floodgates” for others. It said that its aim in having such a strict uniform policy was to avoid allowing gang culture into school. The High Court did not accept that argument; whilst it accepted what the school was trying to achieve, it did not agree that this was a proportionate way of doing so and it found the school to have indirectly discriminated against the boy on the ground of race. The court pointed out that the school should have considered the pupil’s case on its merits and that because there was a “genuine cultural and family practice of not cutting males’ hair and wearing cornrows” then an exception could be made.
"So what does all of this mean for schools?"
Schools are required to have policies which promote good behaviour and discipline. Uniform policies go some way towards achieving this and St Gregory’s made clear that it is entirely reasonable for schools to have strict rules in place. However, a policy must not place a pupil or group of pupils at a significant disadvantage compared to their peers, otherwise it could be considered to be discriminatory.
Policies will be different for every school and it is good practice for schools to consult (with staff, parents and pupils) on policies when preparing or amending them. Doing so will usually assist the school in pre-empting or avoiding any issues that might otherwise arise. When applying policies, schools should not adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ blanket approach in order to avoid falling foul of the law.
If you would like more information on this update or assistance with any related matters, please contact Laura Thompson, or give us a call on 0345 070 6000.
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