A secondary school has been forced to roll back changes to its uniform policy after anger and protest from students who complained the measures discriminated against ethnic minority pupils.
Students at Pimlico Academy in Westminster, London, staged a boycott of classes on Wednesday over a range of issues with school leadership while expressing frustration over a lack of recognition for Black History Month as well as strict guidance on student appearance.
Limitations included a ban on hair styles that “may block the view of others” – seen by students and parents as an attack on afro hair styles.
Meanwhile, stipulations around the wearing of hijabs, included rules that state “if students choose to wear a headscarf, it must completely cover the hair”. There is a list of complaints, purportedly from students, saying: “This is harmful and insensitive towards girls who have just started to wear the hijab or are struggling with it. It is a personal choice which shouldn’t be decided by authorities who haven’t experienced this.”
However, in an update to school guidance, the measures were stripped from the dress code, with the changes accompanied by an apology from the school’s headteacher, Daniel Smith – who just hours prior had received a vote of no confidence from unionised staff.
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He added that, after talking with a representative of the students body, the school would conduct a review of its flying of the union flag, map out changes to its PSHE provision and to review safeguarding procedures around women’s safety and sexual assaults.
Last year, students removed and burned a Union Jack that was flown on the school campus, while parents told The Independent they were unsurprised by recently painted graffiti near the school that read “White schools for brown kids – are you mad?”, “Pimlico Academy … run by racists … for profit!!!” and “Ain’t no black in the Union Jack”.
“Our students are bright, courageous, intelligent young people, passionate about the things that matter to them and acutely attuned to injustice”, he wrote in a message to parents. “I admire them hugely for this though I regret that it came to this.”
Mr Smith added: “I want to conclude by apologising: to students who continue to inspire me daily and who have not always had their voices listened to closely enough; to my colleagues, the staff at Pimlico Academy, who continue to serve the students with such overwhelming dedication during difficult times; to parents and carers who, we know, always have the best interests of their children at heart and; to the wider community with whom we are committed to working positively with in the future.
“This is a moment for me and the Leadership Team to reflect deeply and to plan carefully so that, going forward, all who work and learn here can feel confident about doing so in a positive, scholarly, respectful environment. “
However, despite the concession, a spokesperson for the National Education Union (NEU) said members at the school would be moving towards a ballot for strike action “because of unacceptable management style, failures to communicate properly with staff including in response to serious incidents, failure to provide a safe working environment for staff, refusal to meaningfully engage with NEU representatives, and unreasonable workload”.
On Tuesday evening, ahead of the protests by students, members at the school passed a motion of no confidence in Mr Smith, accusing him of having brought the school into disrepute.
Pauline Buchanan, NEU London Regional Secretary, said: “Members have not taken this decision lightly. This vote is in response to serious failures of management which members believe are bringing the school into disrepute.
“As well as NEU members’ trade dispute over the industrial issues, members have strongly expressed their solidarity with students’ concerns and their desire for an anti-racist school.”
Scores of pupils at Pimlico Academy in Westminster, central London, chanted “we want change” and walked out of school early on Wednesday in protest against the school hierarchy.
Speaking after pupils had been sent home for the day one parent, who gave their name as Dee, told the PA news agency: “The main problem is when the new headteacher came along he changed a lot of the rules, mainly to do with their appearance, so like their hair and their head scarves… as in they shouldn’t have a hairdo that can block the view of others.”
She claimed this was “basically talking about Afro hair”.
Speaking of the students, another parent, who identified herself as Shan, added: “They tried a lot with the school … but their voices weren’t getting heard and this is why it reached this.
“I think the headteacher just needs to come down to our level and listen. But he was actually hiding.”
Meanwhile, a member of staff speaking outside the school said the enforcement and “strictness” of recent rule changes had caused some teachers to feel “undermined”.
The staff member, who did not give her name, said students felt the uniform policy was “racially discriminating” in that it “targeted particular groups in the school” such as those wearing a “head dress” or those with “Afros”.
“Our feeling as staff is that we really support what the kids have done,” she added.
Future Academies, which runs the school, said in a statement: “This morning Pimlico Academy saw a protest by some students. The majority of students were in classrooms studying as usual throughout the protest.
“It is with regret that these matters have come to a head in such a public way. We want to take this opportunity to reassure parents that this is an isolated event, and we are working to resolve the issues raised.
“We apologise to all children, families and staff for the disruption today.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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