St Gregory’s Catholic Science College had banned boys from wearing their hair in cornrows, but not girls.
They argued, at the High Court, that this did not discriminate against African-Caribbean pupils because the wearing of cornrows was not of exceptional importance to the individual. The school also claimed that any discrimination there was could be justified as a proportionate means of meeting their legitimate aim of keeping gang culture out of the school, and avoiding ethnic tensions and violence. On the sex discrimination point, they argued that there was no discrimination, because it is conventional for girls to wear cornrows, but not boys.
The school was right, said the Court, on the sex discrimination issue. Adherence to conventional norms (e.g. a prohibition on boys wearing skirts) could not amount to less favourable treatment (Smith v. Safeway Plc (1996)).
On the race discrimination point, the High Court held that, although the aim of the policy was legitimate, the absolute prohibition on cornrows could not be justified. The policy amounted to a particular disadvantage to the pupil’s ethnic group (exceptional importance was not necessary), and this amounted to indirect discrimination, which was not justified.