Most schools will have a uniform policy or other rules concerning the appearance of their pupils.

There are recognised benefits in having a school uniform, as a uniform can: instil pride; support positive behaviour and discipline; contribute towards the ethos of a school; help to ensure pupils of all races and backgrounds feel welcome; protect children from social pressures to dress in a particular way; nurture cohesion; and promote good relations between different group of pupils.

The law

Under the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 schools must not discriminate on grounds of age, sex, gender reassignment, race, disability, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief or sexual orientation.  The leading cases challenging uniform policies have tended to focus on racial or religious matters.

Unlawful discrimination can be direct, where the school treats a pupil differently from other pupils on the prohibited grounds, or indirect, where all pupils are treated equally but the effect of that treatment is different on, for example, different racial or religious groups.

The following are examples, of cases decided by the courts in this area:

  • a school's uniform policy banning cornrows (a type of hairstyle commonly worn by African Caribbean people) for boys, but not for girls, was found to be unlawful and constituted indirect race discrimination.  The claimant had been prevented from taking up his place at the school as he was unwilling to comply with the school's policy.  The court found that a ban on this type of hairstyle was not a proportionate means of achieving the school's aim, which was to keep gang culture out of school.  (G -v- Head Teacher and Governing Body of St Gregory's Catholic Science College).
  • a Muslim girl aged nearly 14 at the relevant time, claimed that she had been unlawfully discriminated against and her human rights violated, by being prevented from wearing a jilbab, a long coat-like garment.  She had arrived at school demanding to wear the jilbab, but was sent home to change.  She never returned.  In this case the court found that the pupil had not been unlawfully discriminated against as the pupil had not been excluded when she was told to go home and return to the school wearing an alternative form of Muslim dress, the shalwar kameeze which was acceptable under the school's uniform policy (R (Begum) -v- Head Teacher and Governors of Denbigh High School).
  • a 14 year old Sikh girl who was refused permission to wear a Kara bangle, succeeded in her claim for indirect race and religious discrimination, as the school was unable to justify its failure to make an exception to its uniform policy for this pupil.  In this case, the judge compared the "very small and very unostentatious" Kara bangle worn by Sikhs, with the "extremely clearly visible and very ostentatious" jilbab and niqab worn by the claimant in the case mentioned above (R (Watkins-Singh) -v- Governing Body of Aberdare Girls' High School).  A pupil asserting their right to wear a crucifix would however be unlikely to succeed in meeting the criterion that the item is of exceptional importance to their religion (Eweida v British Airways plc).

What does this mean for my school?

In light of the case law in this area and the obligations under the Equality Act 2010, schools should consider the following points:

  • whether an exception to the school uniform policy applies in specific cases, such as to accommodate a pupil's disability or injury;
  • to take care to ensure that the uniform policy does not discourage parents from certain social groups from applying for a place at the school for their child.  For example, to avoid disadvantage to any racial groups.  Uniform policies should take into account specific differences in dress, hairstyle and even the significance of certain items of jewellery for pupils from different racial backgrounds;
  • in some circumstances it may be appropriate to allow an exception to the policy to be made for a particular pupil.  If an exception cannot be made, and would put a pupil at a disadvantage, consider whether the reasons for not making an exception are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.  In other words, what will be the impact on the established aims of the school's uniform policy by allowing an exception; and
  • schools are more likely to be able to show that their policies are fair and non-discriminatory when they have been widely consulted on, for example, with staff, pupils, parents and governors.

It remains the case that schools are free to adopt uniform policies and can require their pupils to adhere to them.  However, case law indicates that schools must consider making exceptions or changing their uniform policies where appropriate, not only for those of certain religious beliefs, but also for pupils who contend that a cultural or family practice means that they cannot conform and where other special circumstances apply which could be linked to one of the prohibited grounds.