When Laura Leigh Kerr announced to her parents that she wanted to become a hairdresser, her decision was met with "horror and dismay".

The teenager was a high achieving pupil, gaining the top grades in her fourth year exams, and had set her sights on university. 

She said their immediate reaction was based on an enduring perception that hairdressing is not something young people do if they are bright.

Such was her mother's concern over her change in career direction that she went into the salon where the 16-year-old had done a week's work experience, hoping the owner could help change her mind.

He explained that her daughter had a natural talent and persuaded her that hairdressing could be a very lucrative career.

"After that, she was supportive and gave me her full support," says the 41-year-old, who now trains young people entering the industry with Rainbow Room International and has just been named the UK's top educator at the British Hairdressing Awards.

"There's definitely a stigma attached to hairdressing and it's one I've been trying to change," she says.

"It's still seen as a very non-academic. It will get you out of the way of the buses kind of thing.

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"But they don't actually understand that it takes real hard work and dedication.

"You need to have literacy and numeracy and communication skills, all of those basic core skills that you learn at school.

"We are working with fractions and percentages, we are working with chemicals, you are working with science.

"We need more academic kids."

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She said that pre-Covid she spent a lot of time going into schools to talk to pupils about the industry and was surprised that some members of staff were actually fuelling negative perceptions about hairdressing.

"I was going in and having conversations with careers advisors who were saying "I've got this cohort of girls, they are really disengaged at school so we are thinking hairdressing for them," said the hairdresser, who lives in Glasgow's west end.

"I was thinking - okay, cool, how much do you earn. My stylists are earning more than your head teacher is earning. Have you got any idea what this industry can offer.

"Statistically we are the happiest people at work. We are met against this all the time. It's low paid, no skills required and it's really not."

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She initially wanted to be a PE teacher and had planned to go to Loughborough University but this changed after she inquired about work experience with a school friend at Rainbow Room.

"We thought, hairdressing looks like it would be dead easy. It will be a skive from school but it was anything but.

"I walked in and fell in love with it - the people, the buzz.

"I was quite academic and there are perceptions [about hairdressing] and

being honest those perceptions have not changed.

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"I've still ended up teaching, albeit it's not physical education."

She has worked with the company for 26 years and now mainly trains the next generation of hairdressers at Rainbow Room's academy in Glasgow city centre, while still seeing clients a couple of days a week.

She says there is also a stigma attached to boys coming into the industry, despite the fact some of the biggest names in hairdressing, historically, have been men including Vidal Sassoon and Nicky Clarke.

She was involved in a project with the charity Action for Children which offered barbering training to a group of boys who left school without any qualifications. While none of them ended up in the industry, they are all now employed in other roles.

All trainees come into Rainbow Room through modern apprenticeships and stylists within the company are qualified to an advanced level (NVQ 3) but she says this is not always the case in salons.

She is involved in efforts to strengthen regulations in the industry with the Hair and Beauty Industry Authority (HABIA) and helped devise new occupational standards.

"At the moment anyone can set up a salon," she says.

"It would very dangerous but the onus is very much on the salon to ensure that staff are fully qualified and have all the skills required.

"The UK is one of the least regulated but we are pushing."