Afro Hair Matters: How can we ensure we have inclusive hair policies in schools?
As a white teacher and parent, I had never heard of hair discrimination until 2016 when my daughter, Ruby Williams, was challenged about her afro hair.
Since then, we have experienced a painful and complicated journey. As a family, we are proud of how Ruby has wanted to share her story publicly. She wants to raise awareness so that no other child ever has to feel the way she did at 14-years-old, or experience the lasting emotional impact.
There have been several high profile cases regarding pupils with afro hair being unfairly impacted due to hair policies. This is being discussed by many, including; educators, politicians, legal practitioners, families and community groups.
Legislation around afro hair discrimination
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Race in Education has taken considerable steps led by its founder L’myah Sherae, to combat this. They have worked alongside the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who had already pledged to "provide advice and guidance to schools and colleges on how to implement a rights-based approach to education".
The APPG wrote to the EHRC last year about the issue of afro hair discrimination and did so with the support of many stakeholders, including; Ruby Williams, Emma Dabiri, The Halo Collective and many others. This issue had already been brought to Parliament in 2020, led by the Lib Dems.
This week, the Government, EHRC, APPG and others all pledged to produce 'strengthened' guidance for schools about afro hair discrimination. It is important for everyone to have their say; so please share this survey.
This announcement comes four months after the Government set out its 'Inclusive Britain' action plan. They named my daughter’s case and highlighted the issue of school hair policies.They stated that the Department for Education (DfE) will collaborate with the Equality Hub to create a ‘resource’ for schools.
I am concerned that ‘strengthened guidance’ will simply be that… guidance. Guidance can be ignored by schools, as has happened with current guidance by the DfE.
Additionally, the ‘Equality Act 12 Years On’ report was launched in parliament, detailing the improvements that could be made to the Equality Act 2010. The authors have gone into detail about Afro hair discrimination and have shared cases including Ruby’s. Many have suggested that strengthening the Equality Act will solve this issue, however this would still mean that families would be forced to take legal action when instances of hair discrimination occur, using equalities legislation.
Taking a school to court under the Equality Act 2010 is too much to ask, in my opinion. We discovered this the hard way as we faced many complications, delays, disappointments and heartbreak when bringing our own case. We had the support of an amazing legal team and the EHRC but it was still an uphill battle. We do not regret fighting as hard as we did, but we acknowledge the emotional toll it took on Ruby, and us. This is why we must all work together to ensure no other child faces this again in school.
Schools’ duty to children with afro hair
I would argue that schools who impose hair policies which unfairly impact pupils with afro hair, are failing in their duties.
It is discriminatory to impose hair policies which obviously hinder children with afro hair, a clear racial signifier. Schools have a 'Public Sector Equality Duty' to not only uphold our Equality Act 2010, but also to ‘eliminate discrimination’, ‘advance equality’ and ‘foster good relations’ between those with protected characteristics and others. It is the school’s duty to maintain an inclusive and accepting environment.
All children deserve to feel comfortable without hair policies destroying their confidence or interrupting their education. Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury brought many issues to our attention in the Runnymede Trust’s report he authored on 'Race and Racism in Secondary Schools'. He correctly states that “these policies are shaped by racialised value judgements on what is ‘neat’, ‘tidy’ and ‘acceptable’.”
What can you do?
Raising awareness is one way to encourage schools to revisit their hair policies. Ignorance about afro hair and discrimination law is not an acceptable excuse for school leaders. There has been a pledge by major teaching unions through World Afro Day to end afro hair discrimination, with unions continuing to raise this issue with their members.
World Afro Day helps schools to celebrate and educate pupils and staff about afro hair and its significant cultural history. Although they have produced research in this sparse area, there is still much work to be done.
My view is that we need to ensure this issue achieves protection in education law.
I see that as the only way the DfE will have the necessary power to intervene and prevent a school from discriminating against a pupil due to their hair. This has just been achieved to protect families from excessive cost regarding uniforms, so we know it is possible.
Actions you can take
- Alert the school to any concerns
- Check the EASS for advice
- Report any breaches in Equality Act 2010 to EHRC to consider for investigation
- Seek legal advice if appropriate, EHRC funding is available
- Write to your local Councillors and MP
- Invite your school to The Big Hair Assembly, to be held on World Afro Day,15September.
- Invite schools to #ADOPTTHECODE (Halo)
- Sign Zina's and Emma's petitions
- Join our support group if this has happened to your child
As a parent, teacher, researcher and volunteer, I will continue to be one of the thorns in the side of decision makers until this issue is solved.
Kate has been a teacher since 2008. She is now undertaking a Doctorate in Education at IOE/UCL, producing educational research to support schools in making careful choices about their hair policies. Her daughter’s experience has now shaped a new chapter in her life, where supporting other parents and protecting other children is paramount. Kate can be contacted via Twitter on @KateRoseWill.
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