Last reviewed 22 October 2012

Following the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, Tony Powell highlights guidance and advice for schools to prevent instances of discrimination.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 replaced and unified all existing equality legislation, which means that those schools which met the requirements of earlier legislation will be compliant with the new Act.

An important principle for schools to note, though, is that the Act deals with the way in which schools treat their pupils and prospective pupils. The relationship between one pupil and another is not within the scope of the Act. This means it does not bear directly on issues such as racist or homophobic bullying by pupils.

A school is not transgressing the Act if bullying of pupils with protected characteristics takes place. However, if a school treats bullying which relates to a protected ground less seriously than other forms of bullying, eg by dismissing complaints of homophobic bullying or failing to protect a transgender pupil against bullying by classmates, then it may be guilty of unlawful discrimination.

The PSED in schools

The Act also introduced a single public sector equality duty (PSED) that applies to public bodies, including maintained schools and academies, and which extends to all protected characteristics: race, disability, sex, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment. This combined equality duty came into effect in April 2011. In carrying out their functions, public bodies are required to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate discrimination and other conduct that is prohibited by the Act

  • advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it

  • foster good relations across all characteristics, between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

What having “due regard” means in practice has been defined in case law and means giving relevant and proportionate consideration to the duty.

Schools also have two specific duties. These are to:

  • publish information which shows compliance with the PSED

  • publish at least one equality objective.

Positive discrimination

Clearly schools must not discriminate against pupils or staff in any way and to do so would be an obvious breach of the law. However, there are some exceptions for schools, eg related to admissions and the curriculum. Age discrimination also does not apply to pupils.

In some circumstances, schools may also take positive action. They may treat disabled pupils more favourably than others if it prevents them from being at a disadvantage.

Since September 2012, schools are required to provide auxiliary aids and services to disabled pupils if these are needed.

Schools may also target measures to alleviate disadvantages experienced by, or to meet the particular needs of, pupils with particular protected characteristics. For example, they could provide catch-up classes for Roma children and this would not be discriminating unlawfully by excluding children who did not belong to this group.

Evaluating impact

The judgment of the extent to which the school meets the general and specific duties of the Equality Act is carried out within the inspection of the key areas and the school’s overall effectiveness. Inspectors will evaluate whether all pupils work in an ethos and atmosphere of dignity and fairness, where they are free to develop themselves knowing that differences are respected. In order to do so, inspectors will expect schools to:

  • secure and maintain excellent teaching, learning and assessment for all pupils

  • “narrow the gaps” in achievement between different groups and national standards

  • ensure pupils are free from bullying in all its manifestations, including all types of prejudice-based bullying

  • deal with unacceptable behaviour and disruptions to learning

  • build cohesive school communities where all pupils can thrive.

Inspectors will expect schools to be proactive in these areas and in gathering evidence for their own self-evaluation to be presented during an inspection. This evidence should be primarily focused on impact linked to provision, eg demonstrating how gaps in achievement are being narrowed and identifying the specific strategies that account for this.

Pupils’ achievement

In order to ensure that all pupils achieve their potential, schools should analyse progress and attainment data for all groups of pupils and use this information to tailor provision. This analysis should be used to set objectives for achievable and measurable outcomes.


As well as teaching and learning strategies, inspectors will look at special provision for certain groups. They will expect the curriculum to cover equality issues, particularly with regard to tackling prejudice, promoting community cohesion and understanding diversity. Activities across the curriculum should promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

In the classroom they will evaluate practical issues, such as seating and grouping arrangements and how they support good relations and respect between different groups of pupils. Teaching materials in all subjects should have positive images of all people, including those with protected characteristics.

Behaviour and safety

The two most important issues in relation to behaviour and safety are whether all pupils are safe and secure in school and whether they feel safe and secure.

There should be clear procedures for dealing with all bullying, particularly prejudice-related bullying. Staff should be trained to identify and deal with this effectively. Evidence from surveys and discussion groups should show that all pupils feel safe from bullying, harassment and oppressive behaviour. Pupils should be confident that staff will address all issues of discrimination and prejudice.

Leadership and management

The school should present evidence to demonstrate positive action of how it is advancing equality and tackling discrimination, eg a statement of overarching policy, the school improvement plan, self-evaluation documents, the prospectus, and letters to parents and carers.

In particular, inspectors will look for:

  • minutes of a range of meetings to demonstrate the school’s responsibilities under the Equality Act

  • equality impact assessments

  • evidence that the continuing professional development is inclusive of all staff and includes equality matters

  • good equal opportunities practice in the recruitment and promotion of staff

  • evidence from parents and carers and other stakeholders that demonstrates the effectiveness of the school’s procedures for consulting and involving parents and carers

  • evidence from pupils

  • evidence from parental questionnaires.