Cornrows, school uniform and discrimination

The Evening Standard reports that a 12-year-old boy has been put in isolation after his school, Eastwood Academy in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, deemed that his cornrows were an “extreme haircut” and told him that he cannot return to class until he has his hair cut in a regulation style. His mother, Ms Selina Byatt, said that because her son “is dual-heritage and has afro hair” his options for keeping his hair tidy are limited – and pointed out that a picture of a girl with the same hairstyle was featured on the school’s website. A spokesman for the school said: “The Academy’s uniform policy states the following in respect to hairstyles: ‘Extremes of hairstyle are not permitted’ … The Academy deems that the particular hairstyle, as worn by the male pupil in question, is ‘extreme’ and therefore sanctions were issued in line with the Academy’s policy.” Which would not appear to have much to do with “law and religion”, were it not for the fact that disputes about school uniform regulations and religious or cultural manifestations are a fairly regular occurrence.

A case on very similar facts came before the Administrative Court in 2011: G v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College [2011] EWHC 1452 (Admin)The claimant, an Afro-Caribbean boy, had not cut his hair since birth and had kept it in cornrows in accordance with his family tradition. He was not permitted to attend the school so long as he kept his cornrows (and, in the event, his mother enrolled him at another school instead). He claimed that the prohibition discriminated on sex and on race grounds and that the school had failed to give any advance notice of the ban on cornrows because the written uniform policy did not mention it. As a result of his mother’s complaints, the ban on cornrows was subsequently made explicit [1]. Black African and Afro-Caribbean girls were permitted to wear their hair in cornrows because the defendants regarded them as “conventional in girls but not in boys” [17]. The policy did not specifically refer to cornrows but it was explained at the reception meeting for new pupils: unfortunately, however, G and his mother arrived late arrivals and missed it [18].

Collins J found that there had been indirect discrimination and he was not persuaded that it was justified [51]. He did not, however, agree that the fact that girls were allowed to wear their hair in cornrows constituted sex discrimination [60]. He concluded that:

“… the policy as now applied can result in indirect race discrimination. For someone having the views held by the claimant, it is discriminatory. But, as I have said, that does not necessarily mean that there was an unlawful refusal to accept the claimant in cornrows in September 2009. That will depend on what the defendants knew or ought to have known at the time” [61].

Returning to Ms Byatt and her son, the conclusion in G v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College is obviously not determinative because any case of this nature is almost certain to be extremely sensitive to the facts – but the school’s uniform policy on hairstyles is by no means beyond challenge. 

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Cornrows, school uniform and discrimination" in Law & Religion UK, 8 February 2018, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2018/02/08/cornrows-school-uniform-and-discrimination/

[With thanks to Daniel Hill for the heads-up.]

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