Opinion: Is it traditional to wear cornrows at school?

By Toyin Agbetu | Fri 24 June 2011

Students of Charlie Smith High school, Jamaica

Toyin Agbetu shares his opinion on the recent cornrow ruling and argues we should not use the judgement as an excuse to beautify our children at the cost of their education.

It is often said the older you get the more traditionalist your become. I wonder what occurs to those that start with these views, do they become more liberal? I ask this because I was recently engaged in a discussion about the recent ruling over the ‘exclusion’ of an 11 year old African child (known only as ‘G’ for legal reasons) from a school in Harrow on the basis of his hairstyle breaching uniform policy. The school was accused of being both racist and sexist in the application of its policy.

If you’ve been following the news then you’ll know that the court ruled that the schools application of its uniform policy without allowing exceptions was an example of indirect racial discrimination which is not justified. To fully understand the reasoning behind what some are regarding as a landmark decision it is necessary to read some of the rationale behind the judgement;

“The defendants (St Gregory's Catholic Science College) rely heavily on the absence of any complaints about the prohibition of cornrows. Some boys did arrive to start school with cornrows and were told that they must be removed. All, other than the claimant (‘G’), complied. In addition, since the claimant's case was given publicity, there have been no complaints. Thus it is said that prior consultation would not have resulted in any different approach and the defendants were entitled to regard their policy as proportionate even though one person was adversely affected by it.

The problem of course is to know why all who conformed and did not complain acted as they did. The school's policy is not one which is applied in some other local schools, as the claimant's experience shows. It may be that those who had the same views as the claimant appreciated that there was no point in applying to the defendants' school. It may be that those who complied were prepared to accept the disadvantage in order to get a place in an excellent academic establishment. While I accept that the absence of any complaints is a material factor, it cannot be determinative. And, as I accept, there may be reasons why there have been no complaints which do not mean that there has not been a particular disadvantage to some who hold similar views to the claimant...

There can be no doubt that it is not uncommon for African-Caribbean boys and men to wear cornrows... Cornrows for African-Caribbean girls were recognised as acceptable because they were a satisfactory means of keeping long hair neat and under control. The fact that all girls can wear them whatever the length of their hair does not affect this basic rationale behind permitting them. And there are reasonable views based on safety considerations that it is easier for African-Caribbean girls to wear cornrows then to tie their hair back when the need arises. The claimant's mother disagrees, but the school's view is one it is entitled to have and is based on its experience... A policy requiring no longer than collar length hair for boys and, more generally, a conservative short back and sides is reasonable. It is said to have produced satisfactory results. Thus I do not think that the cornrows difference means that boys are treated less favourably than girls... In my judgment, there is no unlawful sex discrimination... [and] I see no good reason why a choice of cornrows should be permitted on grounds of sex discrimination.

A rigid appearance policy at a school is clearly entirely reasonable provided it complies with equality law... Permitting long hair for girls and not for boys may be regarded as discriminatory since boys nowadays not unusually wear their hair longer. But I have no doubt that 'not unusual' does not equate to conventional and an appearance policy such as the one operated by the defendants is not discriminatory albeit it applies different rules to girls than for boys. In the result, I reject the claimant's arguments that there is sex discrimination but accept that the policy as now applied can result in indirect race discrimination. For someone having the views held by the claimant it is discriminatory. But, as I have said, that does not necessarily mean that there was an unlawful refusal to accept the claimant in cornrows in September 2009. That will depend on what the defendants knew or ought to have known at the time.”

I included the text because the media interpretation of the ruling is far more sensationalist. Despite this I agree justice (a finding of indirect racism) was served in the case above as the facts stood. This was a useful ruling seeing that the school altered their uniform policy in order to make an explicit prohibition of cornrows for boys in all circumstances without consultation.

It was unlawful that the policy was drawn and put into effect, the court also exposed the ineptitude of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) on managing matters such as this;

“The Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) applied for and on 23 September 2010 was granted permission to intervene. It instructed a Professor John to produce a report upon which it intended to rely to put forward written and perhaps, if it wished to apply to do so, oral submissions. Professor John's report was thoroughly unsatisfactory and, once obtained, should not have been relied on by the ECHR. I need not go into detail since the ECHR has accepted that it could not rely on the report, has withdrawn from the claim and is to pay the defendants' reasonable costs incurred in dealing with Professor John's report. Suffice it to say that those advising the ECHR showed a decided lack of judgment in serving Professor John's report and producing written arguments based upon it.”

This is a situation that is unlikely to have come to light without the challenge.

Surely, no parent should be compelled into a position where their child could be denied an education because of what is on their head, instead of in it. Permanent expulsions should only ever be used for pupils engaged in violent, bullying, disrespectful or criminal (drug dealing) behaviour.

On this basis I feel the mother and her legal representatives (Angela Jackman of Maxwell Gillott Solicitors) need to be applauded for not giving up on this fight, placing the child in an alternative school and seeing the issue through to its conclusion. Yet whilst I believe the Harrow ruling was right on legal grounds, I fear it could create problems for those of us who will perceive it as a license to challenge uniform policies designed to prevent the peer group pressure caused by competitive dressing.

Let me start from the beginning. Perhaps it’s my first hand experience as a school governor that informs my thinking but when I first heard of this case it may surprise you to know I was on what many people may regard was the wrong side.

I do not favour our boys going to school with their head adorned in fancy hairstyles nor with them wearing earrings or nose studs. In most schools parents are made aware of uniform requirements when they enroll their children so I have little support for those that accept the rules on entrance and then fight against them when they fall foul of them.

But if a school will not admit one of our children because of their cultural heritage or change the goal posts after admission and refuse to seek a compromise then we should challenge them.

However we also need to be honest in instance where we are the ones failing our children and not the other way round. I recall a recent case where one of our boys was isolated at school (exclusion-lite) because he had some etchings in his head. The boy’s parent decided rather than cut his hair properly that he would not go to school for several months during which time he sat at home and played video games. I have heard similar ludicrous tales with our boys attending schools with brand logos or something of the ilk carved into their hair. Some may feel that I am being harsh but I do not view situations such as these as the school denying the child an education but instead I perceive it as we the parents betraying the social, cultural, spiritual and academic needs of our children.

I have little time for the apologists of undisciplined behaviour within our community, there are too many problems we face from outside threats for us to be tolerating those that would cause us to implode.

If some of us adults are scaring our bodies with ugly tattoos and spending ludicrous money on mobile phones and designer clothes instead of embracing natural and cultural lifestyles, or failing to read books and watch empowering documentaries with our children instead of aimlessly ogling gossip mags, online social networks and Hollywood blockbusters that promote endless sex and violence then we are setting a poor example that assists institutional racism in its destruction of our community fabric.

In preparing our children for adulthood there are times when we have to teach them to adhere to strict guidelines and give them clear boundaries to follow letting them know they risk facing consequences if they disobey. Some people call this tough love, I prefer to refer to it as responsible parenting and teaching our children the importance of discipline.

However since my discussion with those wiser than me on this issue, the hardness of my views has been tempered somewhat ironically. Let me explain, whilst being an African means we draw our heritage from the same centre, the diversity that exists amongst us also means that we are imbued with variations of that rich heritage through our many means of cultural expression.

For example, when my boys were young, their mother did not want to cut their hair until they could speak. I was confronted with two situations. The first that his hair must be allowed to grow until he could speak, the other was that his hair must be able to grow until he was at least five. This was a Caribbean expression of our African culture. On the other hand I was also getting it in the neck from the Yoruba side of my family in which our culture also suggests that we cut the hair soon after the first birthday. Leaving it longer than that could be seen as disrespectful and contributing to holding back the development of the child.

For those of you wanting to know, we did not cut my boys hair until they spoke and one of them also had his hair in traditional locks for a year.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the ritual of the first hair cut is a sacred rite for many cultures – African and non-African and with a little research it is clear to see that the period and reason for it taking place varies greatly. That’s not to forget that there are also spiritual traditions that demand the hair is never cut such as the African faith of Rastafarianism derived from the traditions of communities like the Masai in Kenya.

In these instances schools must not be allowed to use a uniform policy to exclude our children from obtaining an education or disproportionally discriminate against them on the basis of our culture. This is, as has been widely reported is indirect racism.

But as I alluded to at the beginning, the argument I have just outlined in this issue is only one side of the debate. Yes we can agree that any school that discriminates without exception against children on the basis of cultural practices which do not affect their academic development is acting unlawfully, but I cannot agree that all cultural practices must be rigidly adhered to in environments where they conflict with the wellbeing of the participant and their immediate community.

By this I mean that whilst any argument about cornrows being a symbol of gang affiliation is nonsense, there is a valid point to be made that the child whose parents refuses to place a greater emphasis on the child’s educational attainment as opposed to their physical appearance is at a serious disadvantage and increased risk of linking with others indoctrinated into a individualistic and potentially lethal materialistic mindset.

A primary school in Uganda, Africa

Discipline is one of our traditions

Whenever I am back home, I note all across West Africa, our children have low hair cuts until they’re way past primary school age. Many of us seem to accept that the quality of the education back in Africa/Caribbean is more robust and capable of delivering discipline and maintaining high academic standards despite the comparative impoverishment of resources. Likewise, many of us in the Diaspora recognise that the overtly eurocentric education system that our children are subjected to impacts negatively on a large portion of our young people due to curriculum disaffection leading in some cases to educational disengagement.

This is not a new phenomenon. Read Sis Dr Sandra Richards book The Way We See It and you can see evidence of both the problem and solutions. So I ask that if that is the case, why would any parent not try their best to remove any obstacle blocking their children’s academic progress?

I agree that if the hair of our children is being loxed or plaited for cultural/spiritual reasons then the school has a duty to accommodate us. I don’t yet know how to braid my children’s hair - the other day when my wife was not around and I wanted to take the children to a museum my daughter told me she wanted to wear her hair in an Afro. Yet no matter how much I combed it out I didn’t have the skill to shape it and had to resort to gathering it into a bundle and adding a scarf.

If she had needed to go to school that day and had been denied access because of the natural state of her hair then that would not only have been wrong but also very traumatic for her. The same applies to my son if I was unable to cornrow his hair for that day and the school insisted on me cutting it to comply with a rigid policy. This would be anti-African and likely to be an act of discrimination against us on the basis of ethnicity – racism in short.

There are often practical, deep and meaningful traditional reasons for young African boys having their hair plait which if denied should be challenged in all arenas, including courts of law. But if the hair is being adorned for fashion reasons then I believe schools with uniform policies should seek to ensure those guidelines are strictly enforced.

It would be a shame if St Gregory's Catholic Science College appealed the judgement because it would mean that they still have not learned this simple lesson which their existing policy (minus cornrow prohibition) lawfully permits.

Likewise it would be a sin if instead of prioritising our children’s academic development we parents started challenging schools across the UK en mass in order to permit them to allow us to adorn and prettify our boys by hiding behind the claim of our actions reflecting African culture. We send our children to school to be educated, not to compete in a playground beauty pageant. You see the Truth is it is, until they come of age, it is not traditional for many African children to accessories themselves in the way they do in the Diaspora, we would not and could not get away with such foolishness back home, therefore we should not drop our standards here.

Is it traditional for our boy children to wear cornrows at primary school?

No, but there are rare exceptions.

May the Ancestors continue to guide and protect us.


Toyin Agbetu is a writer, film director, poet, and founder of Ligali.

Toyin Agbetu

External Links
Schools refusal to let boy wear cornrow braids is ruled racial discrimination
Mums joy over cornrow sons court victory
Schoolboy put in isolation over line in his new haircut
Public Affairs - Tackling school violence

Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites

Speak Out!

Is it traditional for our boy children to wear cornrows at primary school? Why?
Click here to speak out or read (4) comments about this article
It would be a sin if parents started challenging schools in order to permit us to adorn and prettify our boys whilst hiding behind claims of African culture. We send our children to school to be educated, not to compete in a playground beauty pageant.

Toyin Agbetu, The Ligali Organisation

See Related:

Get involved and help change our world