Banning Afro hairstyles in schools breaks law, claims equality watchdog in historic shift

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Schools in the UK will today be informed that penalising children for wearing afro hairstyles, could break the law. The equality watchdog is set to outline that the banning of certain hairstyles in schools, without the possibility of exceptions on racial grounds, is likely to be unlawful. Afro hairstyles, braids, cornrows, plaits and head coverings are all covered by the watchdog’s guidance, which is the first of its kind. The guidance applies to all forms of hair discrimination but will focus on race “because of the disproportionate impact upon pupils from specific racial groups”.

Jackie Killeen, chief regulator at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Discrimination based on hair can have serious and long-lasting consequences for victims and their families.

“As Britain’s equality regulator, we want to put a stop to pupils being unfairly singled out for their appearance in schools.”

Under the 2010 Equality Act race is a protected characteristic, meaning a person must not be discriminated against because of their hair if it is associated with their ethnicity or race.

Examples of schools being taken to court over their policies on hair are included in the regulator’s guidance. 

In one school, a policy which did not allow boys to wear certain hairstyles such as cornrows was found to be indirectly discriminatory by a court after a pupil challenged it.

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The EHRC also pointed to the case of Ruby Williams, a mixed-race girl who was on numerous occasions suspended from her school because of its policy on afro hairstyles. 

The watchdog funded Ms Williams’s legal case and secured a legally binding agreement with the school to ensure it ended its discriminatory hair policy. 

The agreement also ensured that the school considered factors such as religion and race when deciding what a “reasonable” hairstyle was. 

Chikayzea Flanders, who was told on his first day of school that he should cut off his dreadlocks as they did not comply with the uniform policy, was also supported by the Commission. 

Chikayzea’s mother argued that he should be exempt from the policy as his hairstyle was a fundamental part of his Rastafarian beliefs.

Michelle De Leon, the founder of World Afro Day, said students who wear afro hairstyles are often disciplined because of their hair when they join secondary school. 

She said “many children with Afro hair” are “made to feel that their hair is a problem” and face discrimination on a daily basis. 

She added: “Our work supporting families, protecting children and educating school leaders shows that this extra guidance is needed. We hope that these resources will be an effective tool to clarify equality law for teachers and help shift the bias against Afro hair that has become ingrained in some parts of the education system.” 

The EHRC said the Equality Advisory and Support Service, which provides free advice on equality law, has received 50 reports of potential cases of hair discrimination since 2018. 

However, it added that in many more cases, parents do not report this kind of discrimination or pursue legal action.

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The education lawyer Theresa Kerr of Winckworth Sherwood, commented: “This guidance from the EHRC is a welcome reminder to schools that uniform policies, including policies about hairstyles, can be indirectly discriminatory and therefore unlawful.

“In light of this new guidance, we recommend that school governors review their policies and practices to ensure that no pupil is at a disadvantage because of their race, religion or any other protected characteristic.”

A Department for Education spokesperson added: “Discrimination has no place in our schools or society and it is unlawful to discriminate against pupils on the grounds of race.

“We provided guidance to schools last year to help them adhere to the Equality Act with regards to pupils’ appearance, including that leaders should be sensitive to the needs of different cultures, races and religions and act reasonably in accommodating these needs.”



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