Schools are being warned not to penalise or exclude pupils for wearing their hair in natural afro styles, as well as braids, cornrows and plaits, in new guidance intended to prevent hair discrimination.
Britain’s equality watchdog has said school uniform and appearance policies that ban certain hairstyles without allowing for exceptions on racial and religious grounds are likely to be unlawful.
It is therefore urging schools to review their existing policies and practices to ensure they comply with the 2010 Equality Act.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said girls and boys with afro-textured hair or hairstyles were disproportionately affected by discrimination and warned it could have serious and long-lasting consequences for them and their families.
Jackie Killeen, the EHRC chief regulator, said: We want to put a stop to pupils being unfairly singled out for their appearance in schools. Every child deserves to be celebrated for who they are and to thrive in school without having to worry about changing their appearance to suit a potentially discriminatory policy.”
According to the EHRC, discrimination ranges from describing someone’s hairstyle as inappropriate or exotic, through to bullying and bans on certain hairstyles. Many of the children affected complain their schools lack understanding about afro hair and the care it needs.
The new EHRC guidance, which is non-statutory and applies to schools in England, Scotland and Wales, says: “Discriminating against pupils in relation to or because of their hair may have a negative effect on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.
“Indirect discrimination can happen when a school applies an apparently neutral policy or practice that puts pupils sharing a protected characteristic (for example, race) at a disadvantage compared to pupils who don’t share that characteristic.
“Such policies are likely to be indirectly discriminatory unless the school can show the policy is objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”
The EHRC has previously funded legal action in cases of alleged hair discrimination. In 2020, Ruby Williams won £8,500 in an out-of-court settlement against the Urswick school in Hackney, east London, after she was repeatedly sent home because of her afro hair. The school did not accept any liability.
The commission also supported the case of Chikayzea Flanders who was told on his first day at his Fulham boys school in west London in 2017 that his dreadlocked hair, which he wore tied up, failed to comply with the school’s uniform and appearance policy and was advised to have it cut or face suspension. His mother argued his dreadlocks were a fundamental tenet of his Rastafarian beliefs and therefore should be exempt from the policy.
The issue continues to be a problem in schools. The EHRC said the Equality Advisory and Support Service, which provides free advice on equality law, has received 50 calls reporting potential cases of hair discrimination since 2018, but in many more cases parents do not report discrimination or pursue legal action.
L’myah Sherae, founder and chief coordinator of the all-party parliamentary group for race equality in education, which has supported the development of the new guidance, said: “We want Black children across the UK to know that they can be genuinely proud of their identity, not penalised for it.
“Schools should be safe and supportive environments for all pupils, and race equality in education should be a priority for all teachers.”
Michelle de Leon, founder and CEO of World Afro Day, added: “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 education lawyer Theresa Kerr of Winckworth Sherwood, said: “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 said: “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.”