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Schools warned about afro hair discrimination

School leaders are being warned that pupils should not be stopped from wearing their hair in natural Afro styles at school.

New guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said uniform and appearance policies that ban certain hairstyles, without the possibility for exceptions to be made on racial grounds, are likely to be unlawful.
Race is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, which means a person must not be discriminated against because of their hair or hairstyle if it is associated with their race or ethnicity. This includes natural Afro hairstyles, braids, cornrows, plaits and head coverings, amongst other styles.A black girl aged about 10 with 'cornrow' braids

The EHRC’s new resources – endorsed by World Afro Day and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Race Equality in Education – will help school leaders ensure hair or hairstyle policies are not unlawfully discriminatory.  

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. The Equality Advisory and Support Service, which provides free 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 that their schools lack understanding about Afro hair and the care it needs.

In 2020, the EHRC successfully funded the legal case of Ruby Williams who was repeatedly sent home from school because of her Afro hair.

The resources published include:

  • guidance on stopping hair discrimination, with practical examples for schools on when a policy may be discriminatory, based on real-life experiences.
  • a decision-making tool to help school leaders to draft and review their policies
  • an animated video to raise awareness of indirect race discrimination in schools and what should be done to prevent it

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.

“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.”

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, which is why our All-Party Parliamentary Group wrote to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in October 2021 to highlight the need for new, strengthened guidance. 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. 

“Schools should be safe and supportive environments for all pupils, and race equality in education should be a priority for all teachers. These new resources are an important step towards ensuring that the next generation of children are better protected, and the generations thereafter.”

Michelle De Leon, Founder and CEO of World Afro Day said: 

“Contributing to the new EHRC resources has been an important step towards ending hair discrimination, which many children with Afro hair experience on a daily basis.

“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.” In schools all across the UK, children from all cultures are taught together every day. However, there has long been an issue with school uniform policies not accommodating culturally significant hairstyles in their dress-codes. 

Recently, the equality watchdog has warned schools in the UK that penalising students for wearing cultural or religious hairstyles – such as braids, plaits, afros, and cornrows – are likely to be unlawful under discrimination laws.

Veejay LingiahVeejay Lingiah, CEO and Co-Founder of FlashAcademy, a language learning platform that specialises in EAL (English as an Additional Language) commented on the warning from the equality watchdog:

“In a school setting, there has long been a tendency to create school uniform policies and dress-codes that promote similarity in appearance and do not allow for cultural representation in the classroom.

“Not all students have the same hair types, and different religions and cultures require hair to be worn in certain ways. In this regard, it’s crucial that school uniform policies don’t impose on these cultural or religious beliefs.

“Schools are primarily a place for children to come and learn, and most importantly, to feel included and safe. Discriminatory school uniform policies have only served to drive a wedge between students from different cultural backgrounds, and have caused children to feel that their cultural hairstyles are somehow a problem, rather than something to wear with pride.

“In our multicultural society, students from all backgrounds play together, learn together, and educate one another on their own cultural heritage. This all plays a huge part in creating a more equal society where everyone feels included and respected.

“The recent warning from the equality watchdog is something that would have been welcomed a lot sooner by children that have already fallen victim to these dress-codes at school. However, many children and parents with afros, braids, cornrows, and more will no doubt feel relieved that their culture will no longer be erased in the classroom.”

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