I’ve read this decision three times and it still doesn’t make any sense. It’s long established that schools cannot discriminate on religious grounds through imposing offensive uniform requirements. So demanding boys have short hair is discriminatory against Sikhs or Rastafarians, for example. School dress codes will therefore have an exclusion for properly, genuinely held religious beliefs.
St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Harrow has a strict dress code. It bans cornrows. Concerned about gang influence in the area. Fair enough? According to Mr Justice Collins, no. A blanket ban on them is unfair, the school should consider each case on an individual basis. Because it does so when Sikh boys start attending. It allows them to have longer hair than normal. By considering them on a case by case basis.
As far as I can find out there is no religion that demands its adherents wear cornrows. And when SG was thrown out before he started attending, because he had cornrows, he could not say that there was a religious reason for wearing them. The best he could say was that he liked them and his family had worn them for years.
Rather bizarrely, the artists formerly known as the Department for Education have given guidance to schools that talks about indirect discrimination. That’s not the bizarre thing; that's sensible. The bizarre thing is that banning cornrows can amount to indirect discrimination, on the basis that the style is adopted by certain races more than others. Leaving aside that in time that might become questionable, there’s nothing inherently “racial” about that particular hairstyle. Besides which there may be valid grounds for banning cornrows. Such as gang culture.
The school was fairly clear in its dress policy that hair should be small-c conservative. Braids, for boys, were out. The school was quite insistent with regard to its uniform policy; indeed the government recommends uniforms. Nevertheless, an 11 year old boy was so disgusted about being made to have a different haircut, he complained about sexual and racial discrimination.
The sexual discrimination claim was dealt with sharpish, the racial one less so. Cornrows are, according to a report in the case, a sign of freedom from slavery; a shaved head was a slave’s uniform, so freed slaves would wear long hair, carefully groomed into cornrows, or twisted into dreadlocks. To this extent, cornrows are no different from a Rastafarian hairstyle and therefore should be permitted. But cornrows are a lifestyle choice, rather than a religious obligation. Otherwise, how come every other boy who had cornrows was quite prepared to change hairstyle to match the uniform?
So how can it be racial? The Equality Commission weighed in but its evidence was thrown out by the judge as being worse than useless, it had to pay costs to the school. More good use of taxpayers' money there.
Yet despite this the judge decided that it could be indirect discrimination to ban cornrows. A group of people took them seriously, therefore they could be disadvantaged, and as they largely come from one ethnic group – although the court did not seem to go into the differences between west and east African styles, between races of people that are, genetically, more different than Caucasians are from Maori – there could be indirect discrimination.
The judge went further. He went back to a 1983 case about Sikhism and decided that “family and social customs can be a 'part of ethnicity' within the meaning of the [Race Discrimination] Act.” This is surely going too far. Sikhism is not a family tradition but a religion with hundreds of years of proud history. If a family tradition is a part of ethnicity, does that allow a die-hard football fan to wear his club’s shirt to school? Because his dad, granddad and great-granddad were all supporters?
The decision to me makes next to no sense. It seems the court has just given way to a pre-teen who had a tantrum over his do. Whether the school was right or wrong to take such a strict line is irrelevant – that is the school’s choice and the choice of the parents who send their children there. Why should that be overturned for reasons of fashion?