Race discrimination: A row about cornrows


3 mins

Posted on 15 Jul 2011

In G v St Gregory’s Catholic Science College, the High Court concluded that the College’s dress code policy, which prevented boys from having a cornrows hairstyle, amounted to indirect race discrimination but not sex discrimination.

Case summaryG is of African-Caribbean ethnicity.  His hair (which for reasons of belief/family tradition, has not been cut since birth) is kept in cornrows.  G was a pupil of the College, which introduced a strict blanket policy which prohibited boys from wearing their hair in cornrows.  The aim of the policy was to prevent gang culture and the school argued that if an exception was made, this would undermine the whole of the policy.  Girls, however, were allowed to wear cornrows.   As G wanted to continue to wear cornrows, he had to leave the College.  He then claimed sex and race discrimination.  The High Court considered both the school’s uniform policy and the possible discriminatory effects on G.  The sex discrimination claim failed, as the policy applied a conventional standard of appearance.  However, the indirect race discrimination was successful since, despite the College being able to demonstrate that it had a legitimate aim (the prevention of gang culture), the means was not proportionate.   It was found that Afro-Carribeans, who for reasons based on their family and local customs (which amount to ethnicity and are therefore protected under the Equality Act) were put at a particular disadvantage as a result of the policy.   However, as it could not be said that the whole policy would have failed if they had let G braid his hair, the means was not proportionate.  In previous cases the Claimant would only be successful if it could be shown that the pupil was prevented from wearing something of “exceptional importance” to their religion or race.  However, the High Court considered that this put the bar too high.  If this is the case it will mean that it will be easier for individuals to show that they have suffered a disadvantage.

What does this mean?Although this is an education case and could well be appealed, the case provides useful guidance for employers wanting to implement a uniform policy.  It appears that the College failed to assess the potential impact of the policy prior to its implementation.  From a sex discrimination perspective there is a line of case law which confirms that if the policy follows conventional standards then it will be harder for employees to challenge the indirectly discriminatory impact of the policy.  However, it will not be so easy to justify race discrimination. 

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