Time for change: let’s end discriminatory hair policies

As well as asking teachers to deliver lessons, school leaders can show their commitment to Black History Month by ending Afro hair discrimination, writes Kate Williams

As well as asking teachers to deliver lessons, school leaders can show their commitment to Black History Month by ending Afro hair discrimination, writes Kate Williams

17 Oct 2022, 5:00

The theme for Black History Month 2022 is ‘Time for Change: Action Not Words’. While it’s great to have an opportunity to challenge historical injustice and oppression, we need to do this in the present also. And where better to start than to rethink our hair policies?

DfE guidelines about uniform already state that policies must not be discriminatory. But in response to the Sewell report, the government said in March this year that it would create new guidance for school leaders about hair policies to prevent discrimination. Meanwhile, the EHRC has promised to release in-depth guidance this month.

I could write a book on what my daughter, Ruby, has experienced. She was repeatedly sent home for her hair. Her year 11 picture was replaced by a year 7 picture of her with straightened hair in her yearbook. Her education suffered, as did her mental health. Eventually, legal action with the support of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission saw her compensated and the school signed a legally binding commitment to change their policy.

Ruby shared her story in 2020 to ensure other children were spared the humiliation and upset she felt, and I am committed to securing the legacy of her pain. I do this as a parent, a white ally, a teacher and researcher. To achieve this, we need the help of school leaders across the country, and we do not need to wait for new guidance, a change in the law, or for another family to experience this injustice.

Afro hair is a racial signifier. As such, it is protected by the Equality Act 2010. But the Equality Act Review updated this July urges the government to explicitly specify Afro hair as a protected characteristic because stories like Ruby’s (and Jaylen’s just a few weeks ago) continue to cause harm, to pupils and to schools’ reputations.

School leaders can choose to get ahead of this issue now

School leaders can choose to get ahead of this issue now and examine their hair policies with fresh eyes – time perhaps better spent this Black history month than the annual last-minute scramble for resources.  

The Halo Code was launched two years ago. Why not join all the other schools that have signed up? Others have scrapped their hair policies altogether, such as Verulam School. Its headteacher, Julie Richardson, explains that she changed the policy as soon as she was appointed in September 2021.

“It’s something that I have always believed was wrong,” she explains. “How can hair in braids or in its natural form be deemed ‘extreme’?”

Where these punitive hair policies originated from is unclear, but it seems they persist because some school leaders believe they improve behaviour. In fact, the evidence is lacking. At Verulam School, the change has had no impact as far as behaviour for learning is concerned. “We have high expectations around uniform,” Richardson adds, “but allowing students to express themselves with hair hasn’t affected this at all. We’re enabling students to embrace their unique identity and to be comfortable in their own skin.”

What there is however is plenty of evidence of the effect such discrimination has on young people and their families. My own research at UCL examining parents’ experiences is full of examples. One participant shared how the school’s response to his son’s low haircut had caused the young man to feel harassed and confused.

Teachers and school leaders were “constantly asking him about his haircut,” which he thought of as completely normal. “He thought: […] my dad looks like that, my friends look like that, Barack Obama looks like that.”

One theme all participants shared was the hurt they felt that their voices weren’t valued when hair policies were being developed to begin with.

So, if you missed World Afro Day in September, you’ve still got the rest of this month to make a stand. Not that fighting discrimination should be guided by calendar events anyway, but listening to our communities doesn’t need to wait until the government publishes guidance either.

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One comment

  1. Christopher Clive Ferrier Smith

    Yes. The appearance fetish with dress and hairstyles in British State Schools is an obscenity and is unknown in mainland Europe. As long as pupils are inoffensively dressed and don’t look like Struwwelpeter there is no problem. Could MPs confirm whether educational access in Britain is decided by our laws and HR educational commitments or by ‘No excuses’ Superheads?