A number of leading political figures in Hackney tried for years to put pressure on Urswick School to resolve the case of Ruby Williams, the Citizen can reveal.
Ruby and her family made national headlines earlier this month after being awarded an £8,500 payout after she was sent home by the school for the length of her hair.
It can now be reported that local MP Meg Hillier, Mayor Philip Glanville, Deputy Mayor and Urswick governor Anntoinette Bramble, and ward councillor Chris Kennedy advocated on Ruby’s behalf – all to no avail.
The Williams family have spoken to the Citizen about the impact that the drawn-out dispute with Urswick headteacher Richard Brown has had on them.
Lenny Williams, Ruby’s dad, said: “All we wanted was to sit with the school when it first came out, sit round the table and work this out.
“I’ve been angry for three and a half years. I was feeling dizzy in my head, like blank fuzziness in my head. This is what we’ve been through.
“Ruby has never denied the fact she would tie her hair up for science and PE, but why can’t she wear her hair naturally otherwise, during the day? Everyone else can.
“That’s where we got into the stumbling block with the school. I think the school thought it would go away, because we were told that we could take our child and find another school. But our daughter suffered.”
Mum Kate added: “To this day, I don’t know what they wanted her to do. We never wanted any money. We wanted them to just leave her alone and let her get on with her education.”
Ruby was first approached by headteacher Richard Brown about her hair on 27 September 2016, with the dispute escalating in 2017, by which time Ruby is said to “not be able to face coming to school” in the summer.
Brown himself said at the time that he was “disappointed and personally distressed” that his enforcement of the dress policy was characterised as racially motivated by the family.
One of the first politicians to become involved in Ruby’s case was her local councillor Chris Kennedy (Lab, Hackney Wick), who wrote to Urswick’s chair of governors Roger Pryce in February 2017 and received no response.
His letter stated: “I will not repeat the whole history of [Ruby’s] Afro and Mr Brown’s reaction to it, but it seems that things have come to such a pass that the school is no longer responding to Ruby and her family about this matter, unless you count sending her home last Monday ‘because of hair’ as a response.
“It is some time since Just for Kids Law wrote to you outlining matters and asking for a governors’ complaints panel to be convened. To date no reply has been received.”
The school’s current dress policy, as it appears on its website, states that hairstyles “should be reasonable and not impact on other students”, having been changed in 2017 following complaints from parents to remove the word ‘afro’, which the governing board insists was “not used in a racial context”.
Writing to Ruby’s parents in 2016, Brown explained the original policy as follows: “Our policy makes specific reference to Afro style buns, it also refers to hair that is over the eyes or covering the face.
“The former is likely to be applied mainly to black children or children of mixed heritage, the latter more likely to white children.
“The policy seen in its entirety is not about ‘black children’s hair’…but all children’s hair whatever their ethnicity.”
Urswick, which has not responded to requests for comment, has not accepted any liability for discrimination, with the payout coming from the London Diocesan Board for Schools, which runs it.
Both Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble are understood to have worked to resolve the case.
Glanville recently expressed his “wish” that matters had been resolved earlier and without the need for legal action.
Also active in advocating for Ruby and her family was local MP Meg Hillier, who wrote to Brown in August and September 2017, “concerned that this matter remains unresolved”.
Responding to Hillier that September, Brown complained of the case’s impact on his own wellbeing, saying he felt “bullied and persecuted” as a result of the family “contact[ing] every opinion former in Hackney and beyond to express concerns about my actions”.
Brown added: “Given the constant changes in styles and fashions all schools use phrases like ‘reasonable’. Our slightly revised policy agreed by governors last July makes clear that it is for school leaders (and not parents or anybody else) to decide what constitutes ‘reasonable’.
“This has become a toxic issue because of the actions of the parents who have absolutely no interest in resolving this matter but simply want to persecute me and the school – and use powerful figures within Hackney and beyond to do this on their behalf.
“As a headteacher, I have attended the funerals of eight young people – either current students or students who had recently left the school. I understand life and death issues and have faced up to many challenges as a school teacher.
“Forgive me for thinking that this issue of a child’s hairstyle has become a monumental distraction – we both should be focusing on more important things.”
Brown went on to write of his “deep offence” at any suggestion that mixed race girls in the school had been humiliated or were at risk under his leadership, and pointed to Urswick being the first school in Hackney to be given the Equalities Mark, a national award demonstrating its commitment to equality.
Cllr Bramble, who is also a governor at the Urswick, attempted to push for a “speedy resolution” to the case through the council’s education department in 2017, but like her colleagues was unable to effect one.
Writing to Ruby’s parents in August 2017, Bramble said that the council was aware of their “difficulties” in organising a complaints appeal panel, which is appointed by the school’s governors, but admitted that neither the Hackney Learning Trust (HLT) nor herself could direct the school to act.
Bramble said at the time: “HLT has contacted the school (by both email and in face-to-face meetings) to discuss the issues raised by the case.
“I also previously contacted the headteacher directly on your behalf, to chase up a response.
“Whilst I acknowledge your frustrations with the matter, despite the pressure that HLT has already exerted on the school, it is for the school to make the necessary arrangements for the complaints appeal panel to be held.”
The Urswick headteacher was entirely supported in his enforcement of the school’s policy by chair of governors Roger Pryce, who in correspondence with Ruby’s parents underlined that it is for Brown to define which hairstyles are or are not “reasonable”.
Pryce refers to Ruby’s hairstyle as “the problem” in 2016 correspondence rejecting the Williams’ complaints, and the complaints panel, eventually held in November 2017, shared the school’s view that her afro could be a fire hazard and “potentially discomforting” for other students.
The panel went on to reject complaints made by the Williams family, blaming them for Ruby’s absences by pointing out that school policy asks for pupils to be sent home “briefly” in order to remedy a uniform breach, adding: “The reason absence was not brief was because you would not consent to remedy her hairstyle.”
One aspect of the complaint found to be justified by the panel was that the policy had been applied inconsistently, with members saying teachers should have acted to get Ruby to change her hairstyle at an earlier point.
The governing board chair went on to accuse the Williams family as simply trying to seek “compensation and damages” from the school.
He added that since October 2016 “…the school has been bombarded by emails, most of which Mr Brown decided not to answer. In most circumstances I would want the Headteacher to respond to parents, but in this particular situation I understand Mr Brown’s reluctance to do so”.
Brown characterised the debate around hair in the school as “toxic” in his letter to Hillier, pointing to a secondary argument between the family and another teacher mediating the dispute, who is black and was wearing her hair in a weave.
The head claimed to the MP that comments had been made by Ruby’s parents referring to the teacher’s “unnatural” hairstyle.
Lenny Williams told the Citizen he was making a point about “how many black women in the school are a role model for my daughter” through keeping their natural hair.
Meg Hillier wrote to the Williams family in September of last year, with the case still ongoing, and expressed her admiration for their “strength and resilience”, noting: “It’s been such a long time and a simple action by the school at stage one would have prevented this.”
Urswick did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement on its website congratulated Ruby on her “excellent” GCSE results, which Kate Williams says her daughter achieved “despite” her experiences at the school.
The school’s governing body has previously underlined that it “does not accept that Urswick has discriminated, even unintentionally, against any individual or group”, pointing to “numerous” other schools with “more prescriptive policies” than their own.
At the time of writing, images of Ruby wearing her hair in an afro, while playing in the school orchestra, could be found on Urswick’s website.
Cllr Carole Williams, who leads on equalities for Hackney Council said: “There’s been a lot of public debate over the years about bodyshaming. We’ve kind of accepted that as a reality now, but we are still lacking when it comes to the identity of ethnic minorities – black people and afro hair. We don’t talk about it quite as much, and I think we need to be discussing hair much more broadly.
“It affects me, and I know the psychological impact that it has, so I want to use what’s available to me. There’s no point me being a councillor or cabinet member if I don’t make some sort of change, and a positive change for Hackney residents.
“It affects people in the workplace as well. It’s not just about school, but it’s about how women feel they need to do certain things to their hair. It might start at school, but it doesn’t end when you leave school.
“We need to look at it as a whole life approach. We’ve got to have positive images of black women with natural hair out in the world.”
EDIT: This article was updated 17:40 on Friday 28 February.