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Overview of discrimination in education

This advice applies to Scotland

If you’re treated unfairly by an education provider like a school, college or a university and it’s because of who you are, it may be unlawful discrimination. If you’ve experienced unlawful discrimination, you may be able to do something about it.

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If you want to know if unlawful discrimination has taken place, you need to check:

  • who's treating you unfairly
  • why you're being treated unfairly
  • what's the unfair treatment
  • how the treatment is unfair, or what type of discrimination it is

Identifying discrimination in education

The law which says you mustn’t be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in the civil courts.

You can follow these steps to check whether unlawful discrimination has taken place:

  • why you are being treated unfairly - unfair treatment only counts as unlawful discrimination if it's for certain reasons
  • who is treating you unfairly - unfair treatment only counts as unlawful discrimination if it's carried out by certain people
  • what's the unfair treatment you’ve experienced - only certain types of behaviour count as unlawful discrimination
  • how is the treatment unfair - there are different types of unlawful discrimination.

Who’s treating you unfairly?

The following education providers mustn’t discriminate against you:

  • schools
  • further education institutions like colleges
  • higher education institutions like universities
  • teachers or staff employed by the school, college or university

You have the right not be discriminated against if:

  • you’re a pupil or a student
  • you’re applying to become a pupil or student
  • you’re a former pupil or student

Schools

The Equality Act applies to all schools, it doesn’t matter if the school is publicly funded or if it’s a private school. This includes:

  • schools managed by an education authority
  • independent schools
  • grant-aided schools

Why are you being treated unfairly?

It’s only unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act if an education provider treats you unfairly because of:

  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy or maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

What about age?

It’s not unlawful for schools to discriminate against you because of your age. Colleges and universities mustn’t discriminate against you because of your age but only if you’re 18 or over.

What’s the unfair treatment?

The Equality Act says education providers mustn’t discriminate against you in relation to the following things:

  • admissions
  • the provision of education
  • school policies and procedures relating to - for example, discipline, exams and school uniforms
  • access to benefits, facilities or services, including school meals, sports and other activities, schools trips, libraries and IT facilities, careers services and information
  • exclusions
  • any other detriment

What about the curriculum?

The curriculum isn’t covered by the Equality Act. This means you can’t take action against an education provider if they teach something which offends you because of your protected characteristic. For example, it wouldn’t be unlawful religion or belief discrimination for a school to teach about evolution if you believe in creationism.

Local authorities and schools have a duty to publish and implement plans to improve the accessibility of the curriculum and the physical environment of schools for the benefit of disabled pupils.

How is the treatment unfair?

There are different types of unlawful discrimination. It may be unlawful discrimination if an education provider:

  • treats you differently and worse than others because of who you are or because of who they think you are - this is called direct discrimination
  • treats you differently and worse because someone you are connected to has a protected characteristic, such as a disabled relative - this is called direct discrimination by association
  • applies a policy, rule or way of doing things that puts you and other people like you at a disadvantage compared with others - this is called indirect discrimination
  • treats you badly because of something connected to your disability - this is called discrimination arising from disability
  • fails to remove barriers if you're disabled - this is called the duty to make reasonable adjustments
  • treats you in a way that is offensive, frightening, degrading, humiliating or distressing - this is called harassment
  • treats you badly because you complained about discrimination or because they think you complained about discrimination - this is called victimisation

If you're harassed

If you're harassed, the following protected characteristics are not covered by the Equality Act in relation to education providers:

  • gender reassignment
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

This means if you're harassed by an education provider because of one of these characteristics you wouldn't be able to complain about unlawful harassment. But you might be able to complain about direct discrimination if you can show you've been treated worse than someone else.

Situations when schools are allowed to discriminate against you

There are exceptions in the Equality Act when schools are allowed to discriminate against you.

For example, it’s not religion or belief discrimination:

  • for a school to carry out collective worship of a particular religion, or
  • for a school with a religious character to discriminate against pupils in relation to admission, the provision of education and access to a benefit, facility or service on the grounds of religion or belief.

Single sex schools are also allowed to discriminate against pupils because of their sex in relation to admission to the school.

Examples of discrimination in education

Here are examples of unlawful discrimination in education:

  • a school refuses to admit a pupil with a facial disfigurement because of concerns that she may upset other pupils - this would be direct discrimination because of disability
  • a school reduces the number of GCSEs a pregnant pupil is studying for, when the pupil has clearly stated she wants to continue with all her GCSEs - this could be pregnancy and maternity discrimination
  • a university requires applicants from the UK to have three A levels but requires overseas applicants to have four A levels - this could be indirect race discrimination.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

To read the EHRC guidance for schools go to

To read the EHRC guidance for further education and higher education providers go to

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