School braids ban 'not justified'

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The Independent Online

A school’s decision to ban a pupil who refused to change his cornrow hairstyle was discriminatory and unlawful, the High Court ruled today.

In a decision which could have far reaching implications for how schools set out their uniform policy, a judge found that St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in north London broke anti-discrimination legislation when it turned away a pupil on his first day because he was wearing cornrow braids in his hair.

The school’s hairstyle policy requested that male pupils must have “short back and sides” and forbade “unconventional haircuts”. Andrew Prindiville, St Gregory’s head teacher, testified that the rules were part of an attempt to stop gang culture that was prevalent in the Harrow area in which haircuts were used as badges of membership. Although female pupils were allowed to wear cornrows, boys at the school were not.

The case was brought on behalf of a 13-year-old pupil who cannot be named for legal reasons and is known in court documents as “G”.

The boy has worn cornrows, a hairstyle popular among African and Afro-Caribbean communities, for much of his life. On his first day at the school he was refused entry because his hairstyle breached the uniform policy. He has since found a place at another school but brought a test case at the High Court to see whether the decision was forbidden under race and sex discrimination rules.

In a judgment handed down this morning after a two day hearing, Mr Justice Collins ruled that the decision to exclude G was not sexual discrimination but had resulted in “indirect racial discrimination which is not justified”.

The judge said that the school’s hair policy was not illegal in itself but added: “If it is applied without any possibility of exception, such as G, then it is unlawful".

The ruling will mean that schools will now have to take into account someone’s cultural and ethnic background when deciding uniform and hair style policies. Mr Justice Collins advised head teachers that they should consider allowing pupils to wear hairstyles that run contrary to uniform policies if there is a “genuine family tradition based on cultural and social reasons.”

G's solicitor, Angela Jackman, welcomed the ruling. "This is an important decision," she said "It makes clear that non-religious cultural and family practices associated with a particular race fall within the protection of equalities legislation. For G, wearing his hair in cornrows is a fundamental cultural practice which would have had no adverse impact upon the school. His wishes, however, were dismissed by the school without any consideration. Whilst schools face the challenges of maintaining good discipline, a community environment and their particular ethos, this case is a reminder that they must do so within the boundaries of the law."

The school itself was described at an earlier hearing as 'a highly successful, hugely oversubscribed' voluntary aided Catholic school with a large Afro-Caribbean population that perform well academically.

In a statement released last night St Gregory’s board of governors said they would consider an appeal.

"(We have) always striven to ensure that our uniform policy, including that related to hairstyles, is fair and equitable to the wide range of cultures which make up our school community, and we value the contribution of every child regardless of ethnic or racial background," the statement read. "(We are) naturally disappointed by this decision of the High Court. St Gregory's is proud of its rich cultural and ethnic diversity and is run on the belief that everyone at the school is equal and made in the image of God.”

Teacher groups expressed concern that the judgment may hamper efforts by school’s to ensure strict behaviour standards in trouble spots.

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said: “The majority of schools will not find difficulties with this ruling as their culture will allow for flexibility. However, some schools have - for very good reasons - adopted strict and inflexible codes of behaviour and dress in order to establish new expectations and secure authority. This ruling may cause some difficulties for this approach - an approach which has worked well in raising standards. Consistency and clarity are at the heart of effective school discipline.”

"It would be sensible for all schools to ensure that their policies allow appropriate expression of faith and belief, so that exceptions do not need to be made later. However, some will be wondering where to draw the line. Hopefully common sense will prevail in distinguishing this point."