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HomeCulture WarShould school uniform policy have to accommodate cultural sensitivities?

Should school uniform policy have to accommodate cultural sensitivities?


THE point of a school uniform is that it is uniform: a set of clothes and dress standards that are the same for all the boys and for all the girls. Yet a school uniform policy that is uniform is now unlawful. The Equality Act of 2010 requires schools to make allowances to accommodate individual racial, religious or cultural beliefs. ‘Quite right too’ say an army of right-thinking people who have been seduced by the word ‘equality’ without thinking about the impact of a law that treats people ‘unequally’ if they have a legally ‘protected characteristic’ such as race.

In recent years legal arguments over afro hair, dreadlocks and cornrows have been used to undermine school uniform policies and, more seriously, the objective behind them, that of overcoming racial difference and division.

Take the case of Urswick School, a secondary in Hackney, east London. It had a rule on hair that required afro style hair to be kept to a ‘reasonable size and length’. When pupil Ruby Williams was excluded from school for failing to comply, her parents began a three-year legal battle that resulted in an out-of-court payment of £8,500 last year. The school then abandoned this aspect of its uniform policy. In 2017, Fulham Boys School in west London excluded Chikayzea Flanders when he attended with dreadlocks in breach of its uniform policy. A year later the county court ordered the school to pay him and his mother damages and legal costs.  As the Daily Telegraph noted, ‘schools may no longer ban pupils from having dreadlocks’.

Each of these cases was brought under the Equality Act on the grounds that the school uniform policy discriminated against children on the basis of their race or cultural beliefs. They followed in the wake of a High Court case brought by an Afro-Caribbean boy who refused to comply with the uniform policy of St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Brent, north London.  The policy stated that the ‘governors place a great emphasis on appearance and uniform. One aspect of an acceptable appearance is the haircut’ on which ‘we have clear rules’. The policy did not specifically refer to cornrows but at a meeting for new pupils the cornrow ban was stated. The court concluded that the no-cornrow policy for boys was unlawful under the Equality Act because the boy had ‘a genuine cultural and family practice of not cutting males’ hair and wearing cornrows’.

Supporters of these challenges claim they are challenging racism.  An interview with Ruby Williams’s mother appeared recently in the Huff Post under the headline ‘Rules Against Racist Hair Discrimination “Must Be Toughened Up”’. The judge who had ruled in favour of cornrows noted that there ‘can be no suggestion that the school is in any way knowingly guilty of any racial or other discrimination’. But by implication his judgment found that the school was guilty of racial discrimination through ignorance – quite a stigma.

In truth, these claims highlight how the word ‘racism’ no longer means what it should. The three examples above are not instances of racism: the schools did not discriminate against the children because of their race. The schools acted against the children because they were breaking a school policy. The policies were applied equally to all schoolchildren regardless of their race.

The schools were seeking to impose policies aimed at challenging racial differences. As the headteacher in the cornrows case put it: ‘Distinctive haircuts, can, I believe, be badges of ethnic or gang identity in an aggressive or unwelcome sense and can help foster disunity rather than unity.’

When the child is saying ‘I have a different race and culture to which the school must adapt’ he is requiring the school to adapt to him. He is seeking a dispensation and privilege. But he ought to be adapting to the school, which is imposing a socially desirable norm. Nowadays the charge of ‘racism’ is often levelled not at those who discriminate, but at those who are seeking to treat all equally, in order to overcome racial difference and division. This is perverse.

How did equality laws, which were introduced to tackle racism in 1965, come to the aid of those seeking a racial privilege? The answer is two-fold.  First, in 1966 Home Secretary Roy Jenkins began the process of giving up on the difficult task of encouraging migrants to assimilate. In its place he ushered in a policy of multiculturalism, now referred to opaquely as ‘diversity’. The ‘melting pot’ gave way to the ‘salad bowl’.  Jenkins, with slanted language, explained: ‘I do not regard [integration] as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture. I do not think that we need in this country a “melting pot” which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman . . . I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.’

Secondly, the ground having been prepared for a policy of multiculturalism, the law was changed in 1976 to give effect to it. Direct discrimination – ‘you can’t come to this school because you’re black’ – was still outlawed. But indirect discrimination – ‘you can come to this school if you abide by our rules’ – was a new form of risky conduct because if the rules had a particular impact on a racial minority they could be outlawed as ‘racist’. The customs and norms of racial minorities were given legal protection. The law now paved the way for multiculturalism.

Jenkins’s speech in favour of ‘cultural diversity’ was delivered to a quango and there was never a debate with the public about it. So it took some time for the significance of the new law to be appreciated, and it required a landmark judgment by the UK’s top court to establish the transformation. In 1978 Mr Mandla, a Sikh, applied to send his son to a private school in Birmingham. It was a mixed-race school and of the 305 boys five were Sikhs, 34 Hindus, 16 Persians, six black, seven Chinese and 15 from the continent of Europe. The headteacher, aware of the need to encourage assimilation, had a strict school uniform policy, the purpose of which was, said the school rules, ‘to minimise the divisive differences of race, class or creed’. Accordingly, the rules stipulated that ‘boys’ hair must be cut so as not to touch the collar’. The headteacher was not prepared to make an exception to the school uniform policy to allow Mr Mandla’s son to attend wearing a turban because he saw the turban as ‘potentially divisive and could arouse hostility’. He noted that the five Sikhs currently at the school and the 16 who had attended in the previous seven years had not worn turbans. Mr Mandla sued the school for indirect racial discrimination.

In 1982 the Court of Appeal dismissed the claim on grounds premised on the importance of assimilation. The judges noted that Sikhs did not have to wear turbans and that ‘the turban is the symbol of religious and social distinctiveness among strict or orthodox Sikhs, but a very large number of Sikhs cut their hair and do not wear turbans’. In other words, the court concluded that Sikhs could adapt to the school’s rule without losing their faith.

Mr Mandla appealed to the House of Lords, which by 1983 had caught up with Roy Jenkins’s new policy of multiculturalism. The Lords allowed the appeal and found the school guilty of racial discrimination. Even though the court accepted that the uniform was there in part ‘to minimise external differences between races’ this did not, the court held, justify discrimination under the Act. The court found in effect that the individual right to wear a turban trumped the collective interests in upholding the school unform policy. Since 1983, multiculturalism, as commanded by law, has been winning hands down against the jettisoned policy of assimilation.

But with the passage of time the beguiling notion of ‘multiculturalism’ has proved to be problematic by weakening communal and national bonds. Roy Jenkins’s ‘stereotyped Englishman’ began to give way to a citizen who sometimes didn’t even consider himself English. Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of schools, spoke out and noted how ‘under the pretext of religious belief’ campaigners use schools ‘to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology’. It is, she said ‘our responsibility to tackle those who actively undermine fundamental British values’.

The governors and headteacher at St Stephen’s Primary School in Newham, east London, decided to tackle the problem of multiculturalism with a 2016 policy that outlawed the hijab for girls under eight, and they planned to extend the ban to girls under eleven in 2018.  In support of the policy the headteacher, Neena Lal, explained: ‘A couple of years ago I asked the children to put their hands up if they thought they were British. Very few put their hands up. They thought they were Indian, they thought they were Pakistani, but very few thought they were British . . . Although their culture and their religion is really important, they’ve got to realise they’re also fortunate to be here . . . and they have to look at what our values are as a British society.’

Within weeks the new policy was challenged by some vocal parents and campaigners, with a video on social media that portrayed the head as Hitler and the chairman of governors as Stalin. The chairman, Arif Qawi, stepped down after days of online trolling during which he was called ‘dirty scum’ and an ‘Islamophobe’. Those who campaign for diversity are invariably fortified by the knowledge that the Equality Act is on their side. They can intimidate with words and, if necessary, their lawyers can intimidate with writs. The school overturned the hijab ban.

School uniforms have always been battlegrounds, whether for boys over their tie knots or for girls over their hemlines. In the past, policies on these issues were left to the good sense of headteachers who knew how to run their schools for the good of society. But since the passing of the 1976 Race Relations Act the good sense of headteachers has yielded to the diversity that the law requires. Empowered by the Equality Act, Mr Mandla, the cornrows boy, Chikayzea Flanders and Ruby Williams have won in court. But they have not won in the court of public opinion, at least not among those who can break free of the discourse of equality law. It is time for a serious debate about the harm that equality law is causing to society. That debate ought to conclude that what Roy Jenkins misdescribed as a ‘flattening process of assimilation’ should be praised as a cohering process for the good of society.

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Jon Holbrook
Jon Holbrook
Jon Holbrook is a barrister. Follow him on Twitter and GETTR @JonHolb

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