Avoiding Afro hair discrimination in school

Written by: Ann Marie Christian | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are many examples of pupils with Afro hairstyles and textures being illegally discriminated against in school uniform policies. Ann Marie Christian looks at how we can avoid this

In 2017, Chikayzea Flanders, a 12-year-old black Rastafarian boy was told he had to cut off his dreadlocks or be suspended from school. The case led to legal action funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (see, EHRC, 2018).

In 2018, the EHRC also supported Ruby Williams, a 14-year-old mixed race girl who had been sent home repeatedly for having Afro hair. She was told that her hairstyle breached the school uniform policy, which stated “Afro hair must be of reasonable size and length”. Ruby was told her hair was “too big” (EHRC, 2020).

And last autumn, Jaylen Mason, an 11-year-old mixed race boy, started year 7 but found himself in isolation on day one for having a haircut described by the school as “too short” and “an extreme haircut”.

Jaylen’s hair was long on the top and plaited neatly in cornrows while the sides of his head was shaven. His hair was deemed unacceptable under the school’s uniform policy.

His mother was vocal and complained to the school. At the time, the family received a verbal apology and the school said they would review its uniform policy. His mother says Jaylen continued to suffer, being bullied in reference to his hair. In March this year, Jaylen Mason cut off his long hair to raise money for charity (Idris & Ormiston, 2022).

Having worked with children for more than 30 years, I have frequently observed and continue to witness misunderstandings over curly and afro hair textures – both in childcare and education settings.

School policies are often unhelpful (or non-existent) when it comes to providing guidance for school staff.

Thinking back, I remember in 1993 while working in a nursery staff treating curly and Afro hair the same as straight Caucasian hair. Even when it came to seemingly innocuous problems:

  • Sand from the sand tray would get caught in naturally curly Afro hair.
  • When children played in the paddling pool their Afro hair would tangle into knots when wet and shrunk.
  • Hats in the “dress-up” corner were often too small and not able to fit on thick, textured, or Afro hair.

Children suffered unnecessarily because the appropriate hair care products were not available or not understood. These products could have been used for detangling Afro or curly hair. The use of headscarves in the sand pit and shower caps in the paddling pool was another option.

Working in a school-based role, I noticed black and mixed-race girls often missed swimming lessons because the chlorine in pools dried and damaged their hair. Again, we responded with conversations to ensure students invested in good quality hair products specifically protecting against chlorine damage (and again swimming caps are another simple option).

I have also witnessed misunderstanding in children’s residential homes, where I saw how black and mixed-race children with Afro and textured hair were denied the correct hair care, until that is their hair needs were explained to the management of the unit.

A legal obligation

Race is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, which means a person must not be discriminated against because of their hair or hairstyle if it is associated with their race, ethnicity, or religion.

This includes natural Afro hairstyles, braids, cornrows, plaits, and head coverings among other styles.

The EHRC produced the guidance Preventing hair discrimination in schools (EHRC, 2022) as well as resources and tools for governing bodies, academy trust boards, education authorities, and school leaders in England, Scotland, and Wales.

It includes a decision-making tool, video, and case study to assist in educating schools, childcare settings, and individuals about afro hair anti-discrimination.

The EHRC reminds us: “Uniform and appearance policies that ban certain hairstyles, without the possibility for exceptions to be made on racial grounds, are likely to be unlawful.”

School uniform policies

The DfE’s non-statutory guidance on school uniform includes a specific section on dress codes and related issues tied to religion and beliefs (DfE, 2021).

It states: “Pupils have the right to manifest a religion or belief, but not necessarily at all times, places or in a particular manner. Schools should be sensitive to the needs of different cultures, races and religions and act reasonably in accommodating these needs, without compromising important school policies, such as school safety or discipline.

“It should be possible for most religious requirements to be met within a school uniform policy and a governing board should act reasonably through consultation and dialogue in accommodating these.”

And remember, the EHRC guidance states: “Hairstyles worn because of cultural, family, and social customs can be part of a pupil’s ethnic origin and therefore fall under the protected characteristic of race.

“A school policy that bans certain hairstyles adopted by specific racial or religious groups, without the possibility of any exceptions on racial or religious grounds, is likely to constitute unlawful indirect race or religion or belief discrimination.

“This includes hairstyles such as (but not limited to): head coverings, including religious-based head coverings and African heritage head wraps, braids, locks, twists, cornrows, plaits, skin fades and natural Afro hairstyles.”

Examples of schools that have fallen foul of the law with their uniform policies – and who were taken to task by the EHRC – include

  • A school had a policy banning boys from wearing certain hairstyles, including cornrows. Family and social customs can be part of ethnic origin and therefore fall under the protected characteristic of race. The policy was found to be indirectly discriminatory.
  • A school banned “voluminous” hairstyles as part of its rules related to hair and hairstyles. This was challenged by a student with natural Afro hairstyle and the policy was found to be indirectly discriminatory.
  • A school had a uniform policy that banned locks. As locks were a fundamental tenet of a student’s Rastafarian beliefs, the student challenged the policy in court as discriminatory on the basis of race and religion or belief.

The EHRC’s decision-making tool, also published alongside its 2022 guidance, can help schools to eliminate any potential discrimination related to hair when drafting or reviewing school policy.

More than just hair

Generally, a commitment to an anti-racist culture in schools can contribute to better wellbeing and mental health for pupils and staff who are affected by hair discrimination.

The research paper Hair equality report: More than just hair (De Leon & Chikwendu, 2019) highlights the impact this type of discrimination has on the education, wellbeing, self-esteem, attendance, and the identity of the children involved.

Surveys in the Hair equality report found that 16.6% (1 in 6) parents said that their children have a bad or very bad experience at school with their Afro-textured hair and identity. Of these, 46% said that their children’s school policy penalised Afro hair.

The report’s recommendations urge schools to review their uniform and hair policies to ensure there is no discriminatory rules. It also urges a focus on the curriculum to ensure representation of the three hair types – Afro, Asian, and Caucasian.

The anti-racism and mental health in schools resources and research briefing (Anna Freud Centre, 2022) also offers us crucial insights into the impact of racism and prejudice on mental health. As schools, it is important to understand the long and short-term impact discrimination has on children. We must be child-centred in how we acknowledge the needs and wellbeing of children.

Children with curly, and Afro hair texture can be any gender or age, born with natural characteristics that make them unique. These characteristics are not problematic or wrong – but often our school policies can suggest they are. This is illegal and neglectful.

Keeping children safe in education

The statutory safeguarding guidance Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2022) includes in part 2 – the management of safeguarding – the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) in the Equality Act 2010 (paragraph 91).

The PSED places a duty on schools and colleges to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment for all those who have a protected characteristic. The duty applies to all protected characteristics and means when decisions are being made and policies developed consideration for all groups must be considered.

KCSIE 2022 also states that “prejudice and discriminatory bullying” is a safeguarding matter and needs to be treated seriously and reported to the designated safeguarding lead.

Essentials for schools

Review your policies and procedures ensuring they do not discriminate against any child or adult with a protected characteristic. Use the EHRC guidance and decision-making tool resources as already cited.

Educate staff and leadership about how to understand the uniqueness of Afro and curly hair textures and celebrate diversity throughout the year, not only during Black History Month in October.

Resources in the settings should reflect people with all hair textures e.g., books, posters, toys, games. All hair textures should be embedded in the resources used across your curriculum.

Further information & resources

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