26 January, 2023
It has long been considered the norm for schools, and places of work, to require their pupils and/or employees to adhere to a uniform policy. Indeed, I and many of my peers remember being told at school that we couldn't wear nail polish or wear our tie too short etc.
One aspect of uniform policies has recently come under scrutiny. In October 2022 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published specific guidance regarding the hair styles of school pupils (Preventing hair discrimination in schools | Equality and Human Rights Commission (equalityhumanrights.com)). The Commission stated that school policies which prohibit their pupils from having specific types of hairstyles may be indirectly discriminatory. Indirect discrimination is adopting a policy whereby one group or groups of individuals are placed at a disadvantage. Such policies can be utilised provided it can be demonstrated that they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
The Commission explained that certain cultural, religious or social customs require certain hairstyles to be worn e.g., locks or braids. To ban pupils from wearing their hair either in natural afro hairstyles, cornrows, braids, or plaits, is likely to constitute indirect discrimination on the grounds of race or religious beliefs.
Further, the guidance also states that policies requiring differences in hairstyles depending on gender e.g., boys being required to have short hair, is also likely to be indirectly discriminatory on the ground of sex.
This guidance follows some well publicised cases; the most recent being the successful claim made by Ruby Williams in 2020 (Stopping a school from using a discriminatory hairstyle policy | Equality and Human Rights Commission (equalityhumanrights.com)). Ruby was repeatedly sent home from school because of her Afro hair. The school's uniform policy relating to hairstyles was indirectly discriminatory on the ground of race. The school settled out of court.
The EHRC has published some real-life examples of when a policy may be considered discriminatory. It has also provided a decision-making tool to help in the drafting and review of policies related to uniform and hairstyles.
As public bodies, schools need to ensure that they comply with the Equality Act 2010. This extends to ensuring that any policies adopted in relation to uniforms do not indirectly discriminate on any grounds. Schools should review their existing uniform policies in light of the recent guidance and in doing so can utilise the helpful decision-making tool.
Learn more about our Education department here