Allowing students to let their hair down
A recent case involving a girl being repeatedly sent home from school due to her natural afro hairstyle has raised the issue of race discrimination relating to hair.
Although the case was settled outside of court after Ruby Williams secured the backing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it still highlights the need for schools and colleges to consider the consequences of unilaterally enforcing a uniform policy.
Under the Equality Act 2010, individuals are protected against discrimination by the nine ‘protected characteristics’, including race and religion.
Ruby’s is not the first case to link hair with race. In 2009, an 11-year-old boy was refused entry to St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Kenton because of his cornrow hairstyle, which did not comply with the ‘short back and sides’ uniform policy. The High Court found that the school should have considered the pupil’s family traditions and that the strict policy was indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of race.
‘Hair discrimination’ has been more widely acknowledged across the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, several states have addressed the issue directly by prohibiting public service discrimination based on certain ‘protective’ hairstyles and textures, such as braids, afros, and twists.
An evolving society
Dictating how people should dress or look is no longer acceptable in most circumstances, and this applies to hair as well. Forcing people to apply products or use straightening treatments, which can be damaging, in order to conform to societal norms, can be discriminatory. This is especially true where a hairstyle is linked with a protected characteristic.
Advice to schools
Schools can still have a dress code in place to maintain certain standards, but they must be careful when it comes to policies that could indirectly discriminate against pupils. Training can help staff to recognise discrimination, helping to lessen the chances of parental complaints, legal action and reputational damage.
By regularly reviewing and adapting policies and practices to make them more inclusive, schools and colleges can ensure every student feels accepted.
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