School’s uniform policy found to be discriminatory

June 17th, 2011 by Michael Lee

Giving judgment today in SG v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College [2011] EWHC 1452 (Admin), Collins J has held that a school’s ban of the cornrows hairstyle, in so far as it applied to the child in question, was unlawful. The decision (see the full judgment here) that the school’s refusal to make an exception to the policy for the child in question constituted indirect race discrimination is likely to have significant implications for those running schools and the practitioners who advise them.

One of the many interesting points in the judgment concerns Collins J’s consideration of the school’s argument that a voluntarily adopted socio-cultural attribute did not attract the protection of the discrimination legislation. Collins J rejected this argument, holding that family and social customs can form “part of ethnicity”, and that cultural, family and social conditions are often what bring a person of a given ethnicity with the scope of the race discrimination legislation.

The decision that the policy could not be objectively justified also requires attention. The school put evidence before the court explaining that more distinctive haircuts (such as cornrows and shaven heads) can become badges of ethnic or gang identity and foster disunity between groups in schools. Such styles were accordingly banned. Collins J did not take issue with this particular aspect of the school’s case. However, the school also argued that it could not make an exception to the policy in relation to a given style (here cornrows) because this would undermine the policy, which had to be applied generally if it was to be effective. Collins J rejected this argument, holding that an exception need only be made where a genuine cultural and family practice made conformity with the policy impossible. This was, Collins J reasoned, little different to the exceptions made for those of different religious belief and would not undermine the generally nature of the policy.

A further argument that differences in treatment between boys and girls amounted to sex discrimination was not upheld.

It remains the case that schools are free to adopt uniform policies, and can require their pupils to adhere to them. However, in the light of this decision it seems that the school must consider making exceptions not only for those of certain religious beliefs, but also for pupils who contend that a cultural or family practice means that they cannot conform. This aspect of the judgment, in particular, is likely to draw the attention of those tasked with managing uniform policies in schools.

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