School that sent pupil home over afro hair length received award celebrating equality commitment

UPDATE (06.03.20) A previous version of this article stated that the Urswick School paid for rather than earned its Equalities Award. We now understand this to be untrue. We are happy to clarify the position

A secondary school that sent home a teenager because of the length of her afro hair received an award celebrating its commitment to equality, The Independent can reveal. 

Ruby Williams received a £8,500 out-of-court settlement after she was told by Urswick School in Hackney, east London, that her afro was against the uniform policy and could block pupils from seeing the whiteboard.

Now The Independent can reveal that, in the same academic year, the headteacher of the school at the centre of the uniform policy row posed with the award in the local newspaper.

Ruby’s family took legal action against the school as they claimed she had been discriminated against on the basis of race.

The school fully denies discriminating against any individual or ethnic group and it has cited the national equality award it won as part of its defense in the row. 

But Ruby’s mother, Kate Williams, has called for the school to be “stripped” of the equality award as she said the headteacher has still not apologised. 

Now EqualiTeach, the organisation which has taken over the award, is calling on the school to admit it has done something “wrong” and it says it will be reaching out to the school in the near future. 

When Ruby’s mother found out that the school had received the equality award in summer 2017, she burst into tears. “I was so confused. The case had been going on for a whole academic year,” she said. 

Ms Williams contacted the award organisers to raise her concerns about the school’s uniform policy – which had then said that “afro style hair, including buns, should be of reasonable size and length”. 

The school immediately removed the uniform policy from their website after Dr Christine Derrington, the former director of the award, contacted them about the complaint raised by Ms Williams. 

The policy on the website now says hairstyles should be “reasonable and should not impact on other students” and hair should not significantly cover the eyes as it will “affect learning”.

But Ms Williams told The Independent: “It was never really gone as they continued to pursue Ruby for another year. I believe it is a sham which was done to hide their bad practice.”

It is unclear how much Urswick school paid for access to an online audit tool that assessed the equality and diversity work that the school carried out.

But registrations for the current award, which was taken over by EqualiTeach in 2018, costs between £500 and £950.

Sarah Soyei, head of strategy and development at EqualiTeach, said the company overhauled the award when they purchased it to make it “more robust”.

Previously schools could achieve the award without a visit from the organisers. “Schools used to just write something online and that used to be approved or not,” Ms Soyei said. 

“I think the school needs to hold their hands up in this instance and say they got something wrong and they are going to work to make it better in the future. 

“Their reward is expiring. They won’t be able to use it moving forward unless they complete another audit and work towards things and make sure they are getting things right,” she added.

“Undoubtedly the school has done some things right in the past to achieve the award. But they have also obviously done things wrong. Holding their hands up would be a good step forward in this situation.”

In August 2017, the Hackney Citizen published a story about Urswick school becoming the “first in the borough” to win the equality award.

A photo of headteacher Richard Brown being presented with the plaque by Dr Derrington, founder of the Equalities Award, featured in the article. 

The school’s website, which also includes photos of staff with the award, said the accolade was “recognised by Ofsted”.

But the watchdog has said that it does not, and has never, recognised or “endorsed this award”.

Dr Derrington told The Independent that the school achieved the award after spending two years using the online audit tool and “working towards meeting the 54 different indicators of good practice”.

She said: “Urswick’s portfolio shows 170 separate items of documentary evidence spanning all aspects of equality. So it was a very rigorous and wide-ranging exercise.”

But Dr Derrington added: “It’s important to emphasise that the award recognised ‘a commitment to equality’ whilst accepting that every school is on a learning journey. 

“I have 30 years’ experience of working as an equality adviser, inspector and academic and I appreciate that every school sometimes gets things wrong, despite best intentions.”

In October last year, the London Diocesan Board for Schools made an out-of-court offer to Ruby without the agreement of the school after a lengthy battle with her parents. There was no admission of liability. 

Urswick School, which was approached for comment on the Equalities Award by The Independent said, “The School has worked hard to achieve and maintain the Equalities Award. As part of our ongoing commitment to providing safe and inclusive learning environment for all pupils we are working with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to clarify our uniform policy with the aim of become a best practice school”.

A statement from the governing body at Urswick school, published on the school’s website last week, said it “celebrates diversity” and has been “given an Equalities Award in recognition of our work”.

It added that the teachers want to congratulate Ruby for achieving “excellent” GCSE results in Year 11 at the school and said the staff “wish her luck in her university applications”. 

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