EHRC publishes guidance to prevent hair discrimination in schools

Britain’s equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), has published new guidance regarding the prevention of hair discrimination in schools.  A copy of the guidance can be found here: Preventing hair discrimination in schools | Equality and Human Rights Commission

The EHRC is a statutory non-departmental public body established by the Equality Act 2006 to safeguard and enforce the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect.  One of the ways that it does this is by publishing a range of guidance to clarify its view of the law in this area.

The Equality Act 2010 (the Act) serves to prohibit discrimination and harassment on the grounds of any one of nine “protected characteristics”.  One of those protected characteristics is race.  The Act covers a range of relationships or interactions.  It has a specific part that prohibits discrimination in the context of the delivery of education and a specific chapter that deals with the relationship between schools and their pupils.  Indirect discrimination can happen when a school applies an apparently neutral policy or practice that puts pupils sharing a protected characteristic (for example, race) at a disadvantage compared with pupils who don’t share that characteristic.  Such policies are likely to be indirectly discriminatory unless the school can show the policy is objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

The EHRC’s new guidance states that a person must not be discriminated against because of their hair or hairstyle if it is associated with their race or ethnicity.  Although hair texture is not explicitly stated to be a protected characteristic under the Act, this guidance clarifies that discrimination based on hair texture can be a form of discrimination on the grounds of race.  The EHRC says research indicates discrimination related to hair or hairstyles disproportionately affects pupils with Afro-textured hair or hairstyles.  This includes natural Afro hairstyles, braids, cornrows, plaits and head coverings, amongst other styles.  This is often because of the way some schools’ rules relating to hair or hairstyles are designed and implemented.  Such rules might be embedded in school uniform or behaviour policies or be stand-alone policies related to hair or hairstyles.  The guidance goes on to say discriminating against pupils in relation to, or because of, their hair may have a negative effect on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

The guidance recommends that one of the ways in which schools can prevent discrimination is by reviewing their policies to ensure they comply with the Act.  Whilst the guidance is for schools, it also underlines a broader lesson of the need for careful consideration of how policies and their implementation can impact people's rights under the Equality Act 2010.

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