A pupil who was repeatedly sent home from school because she had afro hair has won a payout of £8,500.
Ruby Williams was told by teachers that her hair length was against the uniform policy and could block other pupils from seeing the whiteboard. She was sent home while trying to study for her GCSEs and, in her Year 11 yearbook, a photo of her from Year 7, in which she had straight hair, was used.
Ruby was awarded an out-of-court settlement after her family launched legal action against Urswick school in Hackney, east London, with the backing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), claiming that she had been discriminated against on the basis of race.
But Ruby’s parents, Kate and Lenny Williams, say the three-year battle has “destroyed” their daughter’s confidence during her vital school years. She missed a lot of lessons amid the dispute. Ruby, who was 14 at the time, said she felt “humiliated” and “stressed” when she was sent home by the Church of England (CoE) secondary school for letting her afro hair grow naturally. “The reason I was given is that my hair might block someone seeing the whiteboard or teacher,” the teenager claims.
She tried numerous hairstyles to comply with the rules including braids and extensions. But alternative styles were too expensive to maintain, they damaged her hair and left her with a bald patch. “As my dad is a Rastafarian he has always stressed that hair is very important, but it was only after I faced this that I understood what he meant,” Ruby told The Independent.
The school altered its uniform policy – which previously said “afro style hair, including buns, should be of reasonable size and length” – in 2017 following a complaint to the governing body. The policy on the website now says hairstyles should be “reasonable and should not impact on other students” and hair should not significantly cover the eyes as it will “affect learning”. There are no restrictions on length, but long hair has to be tied back for PE, science and technology.
However, the family alleges that the school’s student planners still include rules that say hair must not impede the learning of students through “excessive volume”. But the school fully denies discriminating against any individual or ethnic group with their policy.
It is understood that the insurers of the London Diocesan Board for Schools made an out-of-court offer to Ruby, who is now at a different college, in October without the agreement of the school. There was no admission of liability.
Lenny, Ruby’s father, claims the head of the school said it was not about race as he said Kevin Keegan also had an “afro”. Speaking to The Independent, Mr Williams said: “How can someone say that a footballer in the 1970s is similar to my daughter who is mixed between West Indian and European and has the texture of hair she’s got?”
The dispute comes after teachers and campaigners have warned that schools are unfairly punishing black students for their hairstyles, including braids, amid a growth in strict behaviour and uniform policies. Last month, the mother of an eight-year-old, who became an Instagram star thanks to his long hair, launched a campaign to stop schools from forcing boys to cut their locks as she says it discriminates against black children.
Ruby’s mother Kate said: “This cannot keep happening to children with afro hair. They are having their hair policed by people who don’t understand it or its significance. It is part of their identity and heritage. It is just insane that someone can get into trouble for the hair that grows out of their scalp. She didn’t put anything on it to make it big. It is just the way it grows.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, which helped fund legal action against the school, said: “Ruby’s hair is an important part of who she is. We need to be able to trust our children’s schools to treat all students equally and help them reach their potential through education. Policies that single out children from particular ethnic groups are completely unacceptable.”
Dan Rosenberg, an education law expert at Simpson Millar, the law firm that represented Ruby and her family, said: “This case shines a spotlight on a very important issue, and we hope that no other children are treated in this way in future. Worryingly, it is not the first case relating to a black or mixed race child’s hair, and it is imperative that schools review their policies to ensure that there is no risk of discrimination on such matters. One would hope that in this day and age there is no need for other cases to be brought.”
In 2018, Fulham Boys School told a pupil, who was originally banned from the school because of his dreadlocks, that he could return without having to cut his hair following legal action funded by the EHRC. Chikayzea Flanders, 12 at the time, was told he would have to cut off his dreadlocks or face suspension. But his mother took the school to court as she said it was an attack on her Rastafarian religion.
Urswick School said it could not comment on individual cases involving students. But it highlighted that it had received a national award in 2017 in recognition for its commitment to equality and diversity. It added that Ofsted inspectors found that differences were “celebrated”.
A statement from the governing body at Urswick School said: “The governing body is hugely distressed if any child or family feels we have discriminated against them. We do not accept that the school has discriminated, even unintentionally against any individual or group. Our policy on hairstyles is that we need to ensure health and safety standards, especially in respect of practical lessons in PE, technology and science. We ask children to tie long hair back and we don’t allow hairstyles that cover the eyes. We do not have any specific rules in respect of hair colour, length or style. We simply ask that children have hairstyles that are reasonable for school. Numerous schools and academies have more prescriptive policies than those adopted by the governing body at Urswick.”