Ruby Williams: No child with afro hair should suffer like me

A pupil who was repeatedly sent home from school because of her afro hair wants to make sure it doesn’t happen to any other UK schoolchild.

Ruby Williams received £8,500 in an out-of-court settlement after her family took legal action against The Urswick School in east London.

She was told her hair breached policy, which stated that “afro style hair must be of reasonable size and length”.

The school did not accept any liability.

Ruby told Radio 1 Newsbeat she wants UK schools to have “better guidelines on their uniform policy so that people can’t be discriminated against when they’re walking into school”.

“I’d also like to hope that this story gives confidence to those who might be staying quiet about a similar situation,” Ruby added.

Ruby's hair at the end of year nine
Ruby’s official school photo for years 10 and 11, taken at the end of year nine. Image copyright: Ruby Williams

Kate Williams, Ruby’s mum, first spotted the policy on the school’s website more than three years ago – after Ruby was first sent home because of her hair.

Ruby, now 18, claims the school’s head teacher Richard Brown told her that her hair was “too big”.

She says the school, based in Hackney, claimed that her hair was distracting to pupils and blocked views of the whiteboard.

The Urswick School’s governing body says the school “recognises and celebrates diversity at every opportunity”.

“The governing body is hugely distressed if any child or family feels we have discriminated against them,” it told Newsbeat in a statement, adding: “We do not accept that the school has discriminated, even unintentionally, against any individual or group.”

The settlement offer was made by the London Diocesan Board for Schools directly to Ruby’s family, without any admission of liability from the school.

Since the initial complaints from Ruby’s family, the school has removed the hair policy from its website.

Ruby's hair the day she was first sent home from school
Ruby’s hair the first time she was sent home from school, when she was 14. Image copyright: Kate Willaims

We first heard about Ruby’s story in 2018.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was using its powers under the Equality Act to fund a race discrimination claim against the school on Ruby’s behalf.

She had spent years 10 and 11 – while preparing for and sitting her GCSEs – being repeatedly sent home from school because of her hair.

It shocked Ruby at first.

“Am I really being sent home because my hair is growing out of my head the way it is?” she told us.

Ruby's straight hair
Ruby’s school used her year seven picture, when her hair was straight, in her year 11 yearbook. Image copyright: Kate Williams

Ruby developed signs of depression and felt anxious about going to school because of it all.

She worried she would be singled out by teachers in front of her classmates because of her appearance.

“I felt like any time I would walk into the school with my hair out, all eyes were on me,” she said.

The school was sent letters from Ruby’s GP and a clinical psychologist warning that she was suffering because of the policy.

But it’s claimed staff didn’t offer her any support.

The school says it’s “impossible” to comment further on a former student.

Different hairstyles Ruby tried
Ruby with extensions, graduating with her natural hair pulled back in the second picture, and gelled into a ponytail in the third. Image copyright: Kate Williams /Ruby Williams

Ruby tried lots of different hairstyles to comply with the school’s rules.

She tried braids, which can take hours to complete and cost anywhere from between £20 to £100 if done at a hairdressers.

She also tried putting her hair in different types of ponytails and slicking it back with gel.

But her family found that whatever they did cost a lot of money, took lots of time, or risked damaging Ruby’s hair.

Kate and Ruby
Ruby’s hair after learning how to do single extensions on YouTube. Image copyright: Kate Williams

After one incident, when Ruby says a teacher tried to put her own hair bands into Ruby’s hair, she’d had enough.

“I ended up getting frustrated because my hair would keep bouncing out of the bun and in the end I just said ‘If it’s too big can you just please send me home? Because this is not OK’.

“Why should I have to cut or change my hair and people can have their hair all the way down to their hips, as long as they want – but because my hair grows out I need to cut it?”

Ruby getting her hair braided
Ruby says it would take half an hour in the morning to get her hair into a style the school found acceptable. Image copyright: Kate Williams

Ruby hasn’t always liked her hair.

She started straightening it in 2013 when she was in year seven – which took around three hours twice a week.

It caused her hair to become damaged but Ruby felt like she needed it to look straight.

“I thought that there was something wrong with it, because why does nobody else have this hair?” she told us.

“Everyone I see that has hair like mine has it in a weave or under a wig and nobody actually shows it… so my hair can’t be normal and it can’t be as nice as other people’s hair.”

Ruby with natural hair as a child
Ruby aged three, when she was happy with her afro. Image copyright: Kate Williams

After seeing more people embrace their natural hair, Ruby stopped straightening it towards the end of year eight.

But in September 2016 she was sent home and told her hair breached the school’s uniform policy – leading to the legal action.

After years of delays with her case, Ruby and her family decided to settle out of court.

They now want to make sure that children with afro hair at school in the UK don’t experience anything similar – and are calling for schools to mark World Afro Day, which takes place on 15 September, to raise awareness.

Ruby, Lenny and Kate
Ruby, mum Kate and dad Lenny have had support from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Image copyright: Kate Williams

Ruby, who’s now studying for her A-levels at another college, says she does now feel confident about her hair.

“I’m definitely proud of my hair. I’m proud of the progress that it’s made and the journey that I’ve been on.

“I’m proud that my hair is ‘too big’.”

Main image copyright: BBC

Written by: Kameron Virk

First published 10.02.20:

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