Hair, Discrimination and its Impact.

We are proud to be able to use this platform to give Kate Williams a voice in this guest blog.

“My daughter’s innocence was slipping through my fingers: how it felt when my profession destroyed my daughter”

Kate Williams

It has been an intense week for the Williams family, and I feel utterly exhausted, but I wanted to write this to my colleagues in education. I have had many interesting conversations this week; following my first ever Twitter posts! After a discussion with Pran Patel, I wanted to share some of my feelings about what happened. 

This barrister has raised the profile of our cause (ending Afro hair discrimination in UK schools). It has called into question the merits of our case and has dragged my daughter’s character and racial identity into the public domain (again). I read this powerful legal blog which helped me understand why I felt uncomfortable about what this man had said. 

It has been covered in most of the papers. Interview in the Guardian.  

When Ruby was going to University in September 2020, my Mum said that the way I was talking reminded her of the Abba song; Slipping Through My Fingers. I listened to it repeatedly, sobbing in private at the grief of no longer living with the person who has changed my life the most. When Ruby came into existence, my whole life changed. Who thinks about what it will be like to become a mother? Not many of us fully understand how our entire identity, dreams and worldview will shift. It has been the most beautiful adventure of my life, and I look forward to the years to come now they are nearly grown. I’m sure most parents are heartbroken when their children fly the nest, but my life and well-being have become very entwined with her during these last few difficult years due to the trauma she faced and the challenges we have endured family. It probably isn’t healthy, but it was a survival reaction to an impossible situation. We shared our story in Hair Power: Me and My Afro (part 3) and it was starting to feel like we could put some of our pain behind us. Then this Tweet suddenly thrust us back into the pain we have endured.

We broke our silence on February 7th 2020 in an article in the Independent for those unfamiliar with my daughter’s story. I chose Eleanor Busby because she had highlighted the issues Black students can face in our schools. Another brilliant journalist, Kameron Virk,  had been working on our story for years, but I couldn’t get hold of him in time on the day we decided to go rogue! His BBC article and video came out on February 10th, and most of the other news items came from these two. Ruby also appeared on BBC Breakfast (please excuse the quality and my sister as a cheerleader),  SKY and various radio interviews, that was another whirlwind week for our family.

Hackney rallied round in support, as they had done privately throughout the ordeal. Those at the Hackney Citizens acted as couples’ therapy; allowing Lenny and I spend over 3 hours pouring out the pain we had carried for longer than three years. They did a series of stories, detailing the hoops and barriers we faced in our battle; so I won’t go into all the painful details here but if you are interested: 13th20th  27th. They also covered Ruby’s work with World Afro Day and documented Hackney’s support. Hackney Gazette also covered widely, and they celebrated Ruby and Lenny as Black History Makers for Black History Month.

It wasn’t an easy decision to go public with Ruby’s story; it felt like throwing your child to the mercy of the public. Ruby wanted people to know what her school had done, and she knew the risks involved. Previously, we were in a confidentiality contract with the EHRC. It was challenging to remain patient as we faced delay after delay in resolving our situation. 

It wasn't an easy decision to go public with Ruby's story; it felt like throwing your child to the mercy of the public. Ruby wanted people to know what her school had done, and she knew the risks involved. Click To Tweet

I kept hearing from everyone; ‘unprecedented’, and I grew to dislike this word! 

The cost to our mental health was high, and we all became shadows of our former selves. It was a complicated legal situation made much worse by the school, ignoring almost everything that came their way. This included GPs and a Clinical Psychologist detailing Ruby’s deterioration due to this hair policy. Her previous Headteacher, our community members, Pastor, Local Politicians, MP, LEA, DFE, Ofsted, Diocese, Social Services, Teachers and Governors from the school and many Legal Professionals all reached out to the Chair of Governors and Executive Headteacher. They informed them of the errors of their ways, not just in terms of their actions, but also in refusing to face the situation they had created.

We are still shocked by many things, but when the school ignored court proceeding for the year (2018-19), this was one of the worst times. Our lives were in limbo, and as a result, Ruby was denied her chance for a fresh start as she began her A-Levels in Haringey. We were then at the mercy of court delays and complicated default procedures. It was all extremely exhausting for everyone, but most of all, Ruby of course. The stress, trauma and uncertainty remained in her life for a further 18 months, overshadowing any positive impact her new college tried to have.

The school ignored requests for minutes to meetings we had been at, did not hand over her pupil file or Governing body minutes about the appearance policy and ignored FOIA requests. They also ignored pleas to correct official attendance records (yes, they had her marked as attending when she was actually at home). They ignored requests for a Governor complaints panel for a whole year (2016-17) and only arranged one when the DFE forced them. When procedures finally made it to witness statements being prepared, many were littered with untruths and assumptions. Their behaviour, in my opinion, was entirely unprofessional; including the language they used in official correspondence and newsletters. Most shocking of all, they have now spent more than £10,000 of the school’s budget to send legal letters to newspapers who had accurately reported our story (the £10000 was found from an FOIA request I made through ‘Whatdotheyknow’ as of August 2020). 

As teachers; we have a massive responsibility to our pupils, and we will help shape their lives. Our job is not only to educate them; but also to nurture them, to enhance their lives and to help them fulfil their potential. The… Click To Tweet

As teachers; we have a massive responsibility to our pupils, and we will help shape their lives. Our job is not only to educate them; but also to nurture them, to enhance their lives and to help them fulfil their potential. The barriers and sledgehammers that Black and Mixed-race pupils face in our education system are criminal, by which I mean illegal. I was a naïve white mother when I entered teacher training (2007), and I can remember learning about the extra money schools received at the time, to try and close the attainment gap between ethnic groups. I thought about my children and questioned how their lives might be more challenging due to their race. As parents; we have done our utmost to give them the best start in life, so when this wrecking ball hit my child in 2016, it was a colossal shock.

My husband was angry, but he did not suffer the extreme shock and distress that I did. We have spent time unpicking our different reactions and have concluded it was because we have grown up in differing worlds. He has lived his entire life, knowing that the system is stacked against him. On the other hand, I have lived my life, pretty much achieving whatever I set my sights on and being held back by nothing. It was a huge shock when the school refused to hear my voice, and I had a taste of what it is to be ignored, marginalised, discredited and gaslighted.

As a previous parent governor, I believe in ‘parents as partners’. I remember my husband being Santa one year at her Nursery school, and this little Black boy was beside himself with excitement because he could see the red, gold and green string vest peeping out through the costume! “Santa has the same vest as me!”, he said, and I learned there and then the importance of representation. We ensured our children went to a school with a teacher body which was as representative as possible. My husband became a parent Governor in their primary school. We all volunteered in their education, Nana included! I volunteered in their Primary school, and her Nursery headteacher encouraged me to apply for teacher training and was my reference. I know that you become less involved once they start secondary school. We would always show respect and partnership with their teachers and had three blissfully happy years. I honestly thought this was just a colossal mistake and when I pointed it out to them, they would apologise to Ruby and change the policy, which would be the end of it. One of the first teachers I spoke to told me that the head would “never back down” and they recommended that I changed Ruby’s hair! “CHANGE IT TO WHAT?” I replied. 

I honestly thought this was just a colossal mistake and when I pointed it out to them, they would apologise to Ruby and change the policy, which would be the end of it. One of the first teachers I spoke to told me that the head would… Click To Tweet

The rest is history as they say.

I’m digressing and ranting as the disbelief and disappointment is still overwhelming and has resurfaced again this week. I watched last weekend as many legal professionals defended my daughter’s reputation. I had people messaging me and asking how they could help. The barrister’s chambers have been incredibly supportive, and I believe this man will face the consequences. My central reflection today is; where was the outrage from my profession last year? Where were/are the other school leaders? Why weren’t my colleagues held accountable for their unprofessional, unethical, illegal and immoral behaviour towards a pupil and her family? How are they all still in post? How is a dysfunctional (in my opinion) governing body continued to be chaired by the person who mismanaged this whole situation so spectacularly? Why isn’t my profession astonished that this school have now entered into a legally binding agreement with EHRC (as described in their film), to ensure they don’t accidentally discriminate against a child with Afro hair again. Please also remember we live in HACKNEY! How is this not enshrined in Education Law? I feel let down by the broader world of education, who failed to keep my child safe and failed to enact any consequences for the people who caused her so much damage.

After going public, we have been contacted by many families who have faced this in UK schools. A support group has emerged organically from these conversations. It includes the families of most UK cases shared in the media and many other families, some of whom are still suffering at their schools’ hands. We organise this group, in association with World Afro Day. In this safe space; we support parents in pain, share information about procedures and law, signpost when we need to, help each other with writing letters, next step planning, and tips for supporting our traumatised children. It is a fantastic group and has helped me and my husband heal and make sense of what we have experienced. Pain into Power, Power into Progress, Progress into Protection!

Another big way I have aided my healing was to join forces with World Afro Day. I enjoy being part of their team and being useful. I endeavour work in the background as a white ally, white mother and teacher. They are a great free resource for schools and families and are now working with five teaching unions. The NEU included a feature article in their Jan/Feb edition of ‘educate’ and it features Ruby’s story. World Afro Day shares teaching resources, research, help and guidance. Look out for our new 2021 competition for pupils (to be announced shortly).

As a family, we’ve partnered up with No More Exclusions. We joined with our specialist experience, but I have become a general member as I feel so passionately about their work, valuing our children as equals and protecting their right to an education. One solicitor told me that Ruby was a victim of an illegal exclusion, although it was never called that at the time. I have had a taste of what it is like for your child to be rejected, ejected and damaged. Still, I am aware that some families experience this for much more than two years and with catastrophic educational outcomes. Schools have a duty of care to all pupils, but they do not always live up to that responsibility. As educators, we all share in that shame and have a collective responsibility to improve the situation. 2021 is an enforced ‘reboot’, so when we return to ‘normal’, we can have a fresh start and eliminate the institutional racism that children face.

Ruby is part of the new Halo Collective and featured in their BBC launch video. We love how this was born from a group of young people and their own experiences regarding their hair in school. Please look at the Halo Code and consider your school signing up. They also have lots of great information on their website.

So, where do these ramblings leave us? As a mother, I plead with my colleagues to NEVER discipline a child because of their Afro hair. It is Children’s Mental Health Week (at the time of writing), the psychological and physical damage that this type of racial trauma causes to young people, and possibly their futures, his vast and far-reaching. Schools should never be the perpetrators of harm to children’s mental health.

As a teacher, I beg our profession to resolve this issue in their schools and sign up for World Afro Day, Big Hair Assembly. Please also consider adopting the new Halo Code for schools too. As teachers, we are called to be brave and whistle blow where a child’s welfare is at risk. Many well-meaning teachers supported Ruby in secret; they whispered words of comfort in her ear; they spoke to me on the street and even cried with me! It was damaging to experience these contradictory and conflicting behaviours from the educators who all had a duty of care. This deeply confusing situation will take years for Ruby to unravel, the knowledge that any of her teachers could have stood up and protected her has left us all with profound sadness.

As a citizen and campaigner, I ask that you support national efforts to create legal change in this area. We can all support making the Equality Act 2010 more specific about Afro hair by signing these two petitions by fellow campaigners. The links are highlighted in this Dove campaign, in which they have used Ruby’s story. Some of us are also pushing, along with a few MPs, for Afro hair discrimination in schools to be outlawed in Education Law, not just Equality Law. 

Anyway, I will leave it there, but please let me know if you want more details.

Thank you for taking the time to read my first ever blog!

Edit: Since the time of writing, Mr Holbrook’s Chambers have expelled him, and our magnificent daughter has decided to speak about this herself; Ruby shares on Twitter.

Kate Williams

Mother, Teacher, Ally and Campaigner.

The copyrights and responsibilities of the words above belong to Kate Williams.

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