Bangle victory rattles unions

1st August 2008 at 01:00
Assembly government will review school uniform guidance after landmark ruling

Schools will need more guidance on their uniform policies after a landmark High Court ruling this week, say teaching unions.

Teenage schoolgirl Sarika Watkins-Singh won her legal battle to wear her religious Sikh kara bangle at school. The 14-year-old was banned from Aberdare Girls' School in Rhondda Cynon Taf last November after she refused to remove the simple steel wristband.

But Mr Justice Silber ruled that she was a victim of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, and rejected the school's argument that she was in breach of their jewellery code.

Chair of governors Ian Blake told the TES Cymru that the governing body was "shocked" at the verdict, as it had thought it had a strong case.

The implications of the judgement are likely to have repercussions in schools across the country. Teaching unions said school leaders will now need clearer guidance on what their pupils can and cannot wear to class.

The Assembly government said it would consider the judgement in detail to see whether amendments are needed to its own school uniform guidelines.

Anne Hovey, regional organiser for the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said: "Schools need to regulate what pupils wear to school and have long been upheld in that right. But now they will need to revise their policies and be careful these cover what's central to faith. I hope local authorities and the Equality and Human Rights Commission will provide some guidance."

The Association of School and College Leaders called the verdict "disappointing". Deputy general secretary Martin Ward said: "This may make sense to lawyers but it won't make much sense to heads, parents and students."

Mr Blake said he hoped schools would now get more guidance on their uniform policy. "We need to look at that thoroughly, as do all education authorities," he said.

The school had a great deal of support from the local community over the issue, he added. "But it would have been better to have had more support from the people in power," he said.

Miss Watkins-Singh was excluded after the school ruled she was in breach of its code, which permitted no jewellery apart from wristwatches and plain ear studs. Governors offered a compromise, allowing her to carry the bangle about her person while at school, but Miss Watkins-Singh refused.

On Tuesday, the judge ruled that her exclusion from the 600-pupil school, where she was the only Sikh, was both unlawful and unfair. Miss Watkins- Singh said she was "overwhelmed" by the outcome and said her long journey had finally come to an end.

Although Judge Silber refused the school permission to appeal, Mr Blake said governors were advised that there are strong grounds for appeal.

But, he added: "We don't want to take this any further because we want to start the healing process."

Miss Watkins-Singh will be allowed to return to Aberdare Girls' in September as she prepares for her GCSE examinations. She will be offered support to reintegrate her into the normal life of the school, while wearing her bangle

Leader, page 20

Weigh up the risks

Aberdare Girls' School funded the court battle itself after Rhondda Cynon Taf local authority stopped offering free advice through its lawyers in January.

Hugh Pattrick, chair of Governors Wales, said: "If governors go down this route they should understand what it might lead to. In the end funding comes from the local authority, and this should be used for education. If the money has to come from the school, everyone loses."

Anne Hovey, of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said if a school chose not to follow LA advice, it must consider the costs.

"It should be sure the governing body has weighed up the risks and isn't placing the school in jeopardy without good reason," she added.

But chair of governors Ian Blake said the school had sufficient funds and would not suffer financially.

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