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Last Updated: Friday, 18 March, 2005, 14:55 GMT
School bans girl with hair braids
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News education reporter

Olivia Acton
Olivia Acton will not back down
A 13-year-old girl has been suspended from school because the head teacher disapproves of her hairstyle.

Olivia Acton returned from a holiday with braids, which Middleton Technology School in Rochdale deemed "extreme".

She has been excluded until the braids are removed, but is resisting the school's demands which she regards as being discriminatory.

The school has offered to teach her apart from other pupils. The local authority says it cannot intervene.

Olivia regards the school's policy as discriminatory because black pupils are allowed to wear braids.

The Middleton Technology School pupil said she was not aware her new hairstyle would breach strict rules drawn up by governors which state that children "cannot have their head shaved or wear extreme hair fashions of any sort".

However, she is confused and angry that two other pupils - one black and one mixed race - have not been reprimanded.

I don't think it's an extreme hairstyle - why is it extreme for me and not for a black pupil?
Olivia Acton

She told the BBC News website: "It's like one rule for black children and another rule for white.

"I'm not going to take the braids out. I don't think I should take them out because I'm not black."

The school's compromise was to offer to teach Olivia in isolation in its learning support unit, but she has declined, preferring instead to study at home.

Olivia's parents are wholly supportive and her father Michael believes he will have to take the case to court.

He has taken three weeks off work to supervise his daughter's home study and although he admits this situation cannot continue indefinitely, he refuses to back down.

He said: "I don't think the head teacher is racist, but I think she is creating racism by saying that black children can have this hairstyle but white children can't.

"The policy is divisive.

"I don't know where this is going to end up, but I can see it going to court and a magistrate deciding whether this constitutes an 'extreme' hairstyle.

"I have already been to the race relations board and my next step is to write to the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly to ask her to sort it out.

"I may even go to the European Court of Human Rights."

Exam fears

Olivia is concerned that home learning is no substitute for the classroom.

She said: "I have Sats tests in May and I'm really worried about that."

She said she would not have opted for her 17 hairstyle if she had known it would cause such a furore.

She said: "I had no idea that braids were against the rules. If I had known that I wouldn't have had it done.

Olivia Acton with her father Michael
Olivia's father may take legal action

"But I don't think it's an extreme hairstyle - why is it extreme for me and not for a black pupil?"

The school denies its policy is racist or discriminatory.

A spokesman said: "The school has firm and clear rules about what hairstyles are acceptable, which are communicated to all pupils and parents.

"In this instance, a pupil was asked to change her unacceptable hairstyle, and when she did not comply, she was excluded for one day because of her failure to observe the school rules.

"Olivia returned to school on 7 March, but as her hair was still braided, she was again sent home.

"It is crucial for pupils facing Sats exams that they are at school when they need to be."

Ann Tipton, head of the learners and young people's service at Rochdale Borough Council, said: "School uniforms and dress codes are set by the governors of the school and so the local authority is not able to intervene directly in this matter.

"I have spoken to Mr Acton and advised him how he can pursue this with the school.

"If the local authority is able to help resolve this, then we will, of course, do so.

"Rochdale council's view is that pupils should attend school.

"I understand that Olivia has been offered the opportunity to work in school but has preferred to study at home."

Legal position

Olivia is not prepared to back down and says she wants to see even-handed treatment of pupils regardless of their ethnic background with one rule for all.

As to whether the family has a legal case is not clear cut, according to Ingrid Sutherland from the Advisory Centre for Education (Ace).

She said: "Generally the government statutory guidance states that it is inappropriate to exclude a pupil for breaches of school uniform rules or rules on appearance.

"However if a school's behaviour policy states clearly that a specific hairstyle is not allowed, then provided parents and pupils are made aware of this policy, the school would not be acting illegally in excluding a pupil for persistent and openly defiant refusal to follow the published school rule."

"In terms of human rights, the pupil would need to show that she has a right under the European Convention on Human Rights, that that right has been interfered with and that the school cannot justify its interference.

"We do not think the right to wear braids, if unconnected to a belief, would fall within Articles 9 or 10 of the convention (freedom of thought, conscience and religion or freedom of expression), unlike the recently reported Begum case where a pupil's wish to wear a specific form of Muslim dress was held to engage her right to manifest her religious beliefs."

Ace believes Olivia's family may have cause to make a formal complaint to the school's governors and hopes that with reasonable goodwill on both sides, the current impasse can be overcome.

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