School’s ban on cornrow hairstyles ‘unlawful’ racial discrimination

A highly-successful school’s anti-gang ban on unconventional hairstyles, including cornrows, has resulted in “unlawful, indirect racial discrimination which is not justified”, the High Court has ruled.

The test case decision is a victory for the family of African-Caribbean teenager “G”, who wears his hair in cornrow braids as part of a family tradition.

G, who cannot be named, and his mother challenged a refusal by St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Kenton, Harrow, north London, to let him through the school gates with his braids in 2009, when he was 11.

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Yesterday a judge ruled the hair policy was not unlawful in itself, “but if it is applied without any possibility of exception, such as G, then it is unlawful”.

Mr Justice Collins, sitting in London, said in future the school authorities must consider allowing other boys to wear cornrows if it is “a genuine family tradition based on cultural and social reasons”.

Even though the family’s application for judicial review was successful, G, now 13, does not wish to return to the school, which he left in tears on his first day.

“This is an important decision,” said G’s solicitor, Angela Jackman. “It makes clear non-religious cultural and family practices associated with a particular race fall within the protection of equalities legislation.”

The judge emphasised the school’s “short back and sides” hair policy was perfectly permissible and lawful, but exceptions had to be made on ethnic and cultural grounds. He stressed the school was “not in any way racist” but had made “an honest mistake” in failing to allow for exceptions.

The judge said headteacher Andrew Prindiville had justified the policy as necessary to stop the gang culture prevalent in the area, in which haircuts were used as badges of membership, coming into the school.

The fear was that allowing exceptions to the “short back and sides” rule would undermine the anti-gang policy. But the judge pointed out that exceptions were already made for Rastafarians and Sikh boys who wore hair beyond the collar, and similar exceptions should be made for African Caribbeans.

The judge refused the headteacher and governors permission to go to the Court of Appeal, but they could go to the appeal judges direct to ask them to consider the case.