Stopping a school from using a discriminatory hairstyle policy

Case name: Ruby Williams vs Urswick School

A pupil, Ruby, took her school to court after it enforced a uniform policy that banned Afro hair of excessive volume. When the school didn’t respond to the claim, the court issued a default judgment in her favour and the family reached a settlement. We funded the case through court and secured a legally binding agreement with the school to ensure it ended the discriminatory policy and considered factors such as race and religion when determining what a ‘reasonable’ hairstyle was. 

Legal issue

Is a school’s policy against pupils wearing ‘voluminous afro hairstyles’ discriminatory.

Background

Ruby Williams is mixed race and has naturally big, afro hair. She was repeatedly refused entry to Urswick School, or sent home, while in years 10 and 11 because the school had a policy which banned big afro hairstyles.

She was told to change her hairstyle to one consistent with the school’s uniform policy, which said that hair must be of ‘a reasonable size’.

Ruby tried numerous hairstyles to comply with the policy but many of these damaged her hair and were time-consuming and expensive.

Ruby developed signs of depression and felt anxious about going to school because of it all.

She worried she would be singled out by teachers in front of her classmates because of her appearance.

The school was sent letters from Ruby's GP and a clinical psychologist warning that she was suffering because of the policy.

Why we were involved

Race is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and afro hair is inherently linked to race.

We were concerned that the policy was indirectly discriminatory because it put Ruby and other mixed race pupils at a particular disadvantage compared to white pupils, and the school could not show it was appropriate or necessary.

What we did

As part of a Legal Support Project we ran in 2017-2018 to tackle discrimination in education, we funded a race discrimination claim against the school on Ruby's behalf.

We then followed up with the school by securing a legally binding agreement, which meant the school removed any reference to volume in its hair-style policy. It also drafted a ‘Policy Equality statement’ to accompany the hairstyle policy so that factors such as race and religion would be factored into determining what a ‘reasonable’ hairstyle was. 

What happened

The school failed to file a defence to the claim and the London County Court therefore issued a default judgment in Ruby’s favour.

After years of delays with her case, Ruby and her family decided to settle out of court.

We followed up with the school by securing a legally binding agreement, which meant the school developed a new hair-style policy which could take account of factors such as race when deciding if a hair-style was appropriate.

Who will benefit and how

Urswick School has nearly 900 pupils. By working with us to establish a non-discriminatory policy, the school has taken steps to protect other children from being treated in the way that Ruby was.

By supporting this case and bringing the issue to the fore through the press, parents and children will be more aware that Race is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and that any discriminatory treatment can and should be challenged.  We have also provided support to Urswick school develop a new hair-style policy.

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