'Can a school stop a child from writing exams because of an incorrect hairstyle?': An expert advises

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"Discriminatory hair policies are quite common in SA." (MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News/Getty Images)
"Discriminatory hair policies are quite common in SA." (MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News/Getty Images)
Sarah Reingewirtz

After all the upheaval and disruption to the school year, is it fair for schools to take a hard stance on minor issues?

A reader wrote to Parent24 with a question pertaining to just this point, asking whether a school could bar a child from writing exams "because he has the incorrect hairstyle?"

What the law says

According to Dr Sara Black, an Education Policy analyst and postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, the answer is a firm no.

"A school may not deny a student access to writing an exam due to a hairstyle, nor deny access to a report or a lesson," Dr Black told Parent24, explaining that a school's Code of Conduct must be in line with both the South African Schools Act (SASA) and the Constitution.

"The SASA is clear that students may not be barred from school activity of any sort in public schools if they do not agree with the school's mission statement, or for minor disciplinary issues which I would argue hair policy to be one. Serious misconduct includes issues such as substance abuse and assault, not a haircut".

Dr Black says that denying a student access is only applicable in the case of suspension or expulsion, and even then, the school would need to make an alternative plan for the learner regarding exams. 

"The school would be obliged to allow the student to write at an alternative date once a period of suspension is over," she advises.

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'Shaky ground'

"In the case of independent schools, it's a little less explicit in the SASA, but any independent school would do well to heed the Constitutional Court case of MEC vs. Pillay (2002) in which cultural and religious difference was adjudicated as not being grounds to bar a student from schooling activities, as well as the similar findings by the Human Rights Commission on various cases where discrimination was alleged based on hairstyles of students".

Dr Black advises that discriminatory hair policies are quite common in SA and are often "wrought with overtones of racial and cultural discrimination".

"Most of these disagreements recently have resolved in favour of the student. The buck stops with the Constitution: article 29(1) in the Bill of Rights is clear that all people have the right to a basic education. Any school who takes the position that exclusion from assessment does not infringe that right because the student can move to another educational institution is, I think, potentially on shaky ground, especially at this time of the year and with exams looming".

Do you have a question you'd like expert advice on? 


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