Preventing hair discrimination in schools: decision-making tool

Advice and Guidance

Who is this page for?

  • Governing bodies, academy trust boards and school leaders at all schools in England, Scotland and Wales.

Which countries is it relevant to?

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      Great Britain

This decision-making tool is intended to help you prevent any potential discrimination related to hair or hairstyles when drafting or reviewing relevant school policies.

It is part of a package of resources designed to help school leaders foster an inclusive environment by ensuring their policies, where they develop and review them, do not unlawfully discriminate. Our other resources include:

In this tool and our guidance, hairstyles include head coverings and headgear.

While it’s not mandatory for schools to have rules on hair or hairstyles, if your school does have these rules, make sure your policy does not unlawfully discriminate against pupils with protected characteristics such as: disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation.

1. Developing a policy

If you are considering developing a policy, think about:

  • What are the aims of rules on hair and hairstyles and what are you trying to achieve? Does your school need rules on hair or hairstyles?
  • Are the rules reasonably necessary to achieve those aims? Or could they be achieved through other means?
  • Will the rules regarding hair or hairstyles affect some groups of pupils more than others: for example, because of their race, religion or belief, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender reassignment?
  • How do the rules affect pupils? Take into consideration their sense of identity, culture, mental health, wellbeing and confidence.
  • Are there health and safety implications? Protecting the health and safety of pupils is a genuine and important factor to consider. Health and safety concerns should not be hypothetical but evidence-based. Any request for exemption must be considered on its own merits.
  • Does your policy meet pupils' needs? For example, you can include the possibility for exemptions in the hair or hairstyle policy on the grounds of race, religion or belief, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender reassignment.
  • Do your school’s rules regarding hair or hairstyles have clear provisions for making reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils? A school may be required to make adjustments to its rules for disabled pupils who have certain requirements in relation to their hair or hairstyles due to their disability.
  • Have you completed an equality impact assessment regarding your policy on hair or hairstyles?

Considering racial or religious groups

Consider whether your school’s policy on hair or hairstyles affects pupils from one racial or religious group more than others.

Hairstyles worn because of cultural, family and social customs can be part of a pupil’s ethnic origin and therefore fall under the protected characteristic of race. 

If your school’s policy bans certain hairstyles adopted by specific racial or religious groups without the possibility of any exceptions on racial or religious grounds, it is likely to be unlawful on the grounds of indirect race or religion or belief discrimination.

This includes hairstyles such as (but not limited to):

  • braids
  • locks
  • twists
  • cornrows
  • plaits
  • skin fades
  • head coverings, including religious based head coverings and African heritage head wraps
  • natural Afro hairstyles.

Banning such hairstyles will likely be unlawful indirect discrimination unless you can show the policy is objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

This means:

  • the aim must be a real, objective consideration and not in itself discriminatory (for example, ensuring the health and safety of pupils would be a legitimate aim)
  • working out whether the means is ‘proportionate’ is a balancing exercise: does the importance of the aim outweigh any discriminatory effects of the unfavourable treatment?
  • if less discriminatory alternative steps could have been taken to achieve the same objective, the policy is unlikely to be considered proportionate. For example, has your school consulted on the policy? If not, it may be more difficult to show the policy is proportionate.

For example, stating that your school is banning the hairstyles listed above, without exception, to uphold a positive image of the school or because the school perceives only certain hairstyles as being ‘smart’, is unlikely to amount to objective justification.

Expressions to avoid

Regarding hairstyle it is good practice to avoid using expressions with a broad meaning, such as (but not limited to):

  • ‘distracting’
  • ‘voluminous' or 'big’
  • ‘reasonable’
  • ‘inappropriate’
  • ‘extreme’
  • ‘exotic’
  • ‘bizarre’
  • ‘severe’.

These terms may have negative connotations and do not provide sufficient clarity for pupils, staff, parents or carers to fully understand which hairstyles pupils can wear at school. They might create confusion so it is recommended to avoid them.

It is good practice to avoid labelling hairstyles in a derogatory manner, such as using the term ‘aggressive’ or making references to gangs; this has occurred in case studies in the past.


If your school’s policy bans headgear, make sure it has exceptions on the grounds of:

  • race (for example, for Black pupils or pupils with a mixed ethnic background who wear African heritage head wraps)
  • religion or belief (for example, for Muslim pupils who cover their hair)
  • disability (for example, pupils undergoing cancer treatment who wear wigs, scarves or hats).

Without such exceptions your policy is likely to be unlawful on the grounds of indirect discrimination based on race, religion or belief or disability.

Consultation and co-design

To ensure an informed, inclusive and transparent decision-making process when drafting or reviewing your policies, as per the Department for Education Advice to schools in relation to the Equality Act, schools may want to consult with those who will be affected. Schools are encouraged to include pupils (for example, through a student parliament), parents, carers, and staff in their consultation process. Where schools have hair or hairstyles policies, it is good practice for schools to inform all parents, carers, staff and pupils of their rationale for having the policy. Schools may also want to consult with organisations that have expertise on this issue, for example, trade unions. The responsibility to ensure policies are not discriminatory lies with the school and not contributors to the consultation process.

2. Reviewing a policy and considering requests for policy change

It is good practice to regularly review your school’s policies on hair – we recommend at least annually or more regularly, taking into account any complaints made and making adjustments where necessary. Complaints procedures should be easy to understand and available to parents, carers, pupils and members of staff to enable them to voice any concerns on rules that might affect them.

When reviewing your policy re-consider the questions set out in 1. Developing a Policy.

Now you have read this guidance, we recommend you review any relevant uniform, appearance or behaviour policies in line with this decision-making tool.

Last updated: 27 Oct 2022