School uniform and appearance policies that ban certain hairstyles without exceptions on racial grounds are “likely to be unlawful”, the equality watchdog has said.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said pupils should not be stopped from wearing their hair in natural Afro styles or in braids, cornrows, plaits and head coverings and other styles in school.
It will publish new resources for schools today. They are endorsed by World Afro Day and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Race Equality in Education, and are meant to help school leaders “ensure hair or hairstyle policies are not unlawfully discriminatory”.
It follows the high-profile case of Ruby Williams, a student who in 2020 won an out-of-court settlement of £8,500 after she was repeatedly sent home from school because she had Afro hair. The case was funded by the EHRC.
Department for Education guidance already states uniform policies cannot be discriminatory.
But in its response to the Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities, the government pledged improved resources for schools, after acknowledging the “very real, practical difficulty compliance with some uniform policies may pose to black children and their parents”.
The EHRC resources are separate from that pledge, and the DfE was approached for clarification on when its own guidance will be published.
The commission said “court cases, research and the experience of our stakeholders indicate that hair-based discrimination disproportionately affects girls and boys with Afro-textured hair or hairstyles.”
50 reports of hair discrimination
It said the Equality Advisory and Support Service, which provides advice to the public on equality law, “has received 50 calls since 2018 reporting potential cases of hair discrimination”.
Discrimination “can range from describing someone’s hairstyle as inappropriate or exotic through to outright bans on certain hairstyles and bullying”. Many of those affected say their schools “lack understanding about Afro hair and the care it needs”.
The resources due to be published today include guidance on stopping hair discrimination, with practical examples for schools on when a policy may be discriminatory, based on real-life experiences.
They also include a decision-making tool to help school leaders to draft and review their policies, and an animated video to “raise awareness of indirect race discrimination in schools and what should be done to prevent it”.
Discrimination has ‘long-lasting consequences’
Jackie Killeen, chief regulator at the EHRC, 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.
“That’s why, after working closely with experts and those directly affected, we are launching these practical resources to help school leaders understand the law in this area and prevent discrimination from happening.”
L’myah Sherae, founder and chief coordinator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Race Equality in Education said “no child should be sent home from school for wearing their natural hair”.
“We want Black children across the UK to know that they can be genuinely proud of their identity, not penalised for it. I am therefore pleased that this guidance is now being published, and I am proud to have been involved in the drafting process.”
Michelle De Leon, founder and CEO of World Afro Day said the resources were an “important step towards ending hair discrimination, which many children with Afro hair experience on a daily basis”.
“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.”