Equality Issues in Schools

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By Laura Clark
on 09 December, 2016

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Equality Requirements for Schools and Academies

How important are equality issues for your school?

If you were to put that question to the governors and senior leadership team at the Joseph Rowntree School in York, their answer would undoubtedly be that equality should be at the very top of the list of your school’s priorities. 

Joseph Rowntree School lost a disability discrimination case brought by their former Head of English, a teacher with cystic fibrosis who had been dismissed for gross misconduct after showing a horror film to 16 year old students. Although the Employment Appeal Tribunal found the dismissal fair, the school was held to be responsible for “serious and substantial acts of discrimination.” An award of £180,000 in compensation was made and the governors and senior leadership team were ordered to undergo equality training in disability in the workplace. The final award of compensation to reflect loss of pension rights could be as much as £500,000. Getting it wrong in equality cases can be a costly business. Furthermore, the impact upon those involved in the case, and the adverse publicity caused to the school should not be underestimated.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 applies to all schools and academies and relates to how a school treats its employees, pupils, prospective and former pupils, parents, carers and members of the wider school community. The Act provides a single, consolidated source of discrimination law and makes clear, in relation to people with ‘protected characteristics’ the types of behaviour which are unlawful.

Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED)

The Act also introduced a public sector equality duty (PSED) which has applied to schools since April 2012. The PSED requires schools to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate conduct prohibited by the Act; advance equality of opportunity between those who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not; and to foster good relations across all characteristics. Supplementary duties under the Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) Regulations 2011 also require schools to publish information to show how they are complying with the PSED and to prepare and publish equality objectives to be reviewed annually and updated at least every four years. All schools should therefore, as a minimum, have published initial objectives in 2012 and updated them this year.

Compliance with the PSED is a legal requirement for schools and it is also central to the Ofsted Inspection Framework. The framework requires inspectors to evaluate the extent to which leaders, managers and governors actively promote equality and diversity and to assess the extent to which schools comply with their equality duties including their PSED. In simple terms, if equality measures are not implemented effectively, this will restrict an overall inspection grade.

Equality Guidance for Schools

So what guidance is available to you? There is a wealth of information available and for schools in particular, the DfE has published non-statutory advice, last updated in May 2014. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has also produced a Guidance for Schools around the PSED and there are a range of technical guidance documents which are regularly updated. The EHRC has also produced a lengthy Employment Statutory Code of Practice which is a valuable guide and which is taken into account by Employment Tribunals when considering equality cases. It is also worth mentioning the Code of Practice issued by the Government in October on the English (or Welsh) language requirements for public sector workers with regard to the new fluency duty which came into force only last week on 21 November. This applies to all school staff in customer-facing roles. The potential for Equality Act claims is clear.

Understanding the requirements

The above guidance documents will no doubt go some way to assisting school leaders and governors to understand their responsibilities and to comply with their duties and obligations under equality law. It needs to be said however that this is a complicated area and the legal terminology and concepts are not straight forward. The cost of getting it wrong can be high and without a good understanding of the legal and HR issues, managing day to day equality matters and ensuring compliance with statutory duties can be difficult and time consuming. It may also mean schools do not meet the requirements of the Ofsted Inspection Framework.

At One Education, we are experienced in dealing with equality matters and our HR advisers regularly provide advice and assistance to school leaders and governors in this area. The HR team has produced a Model Equality Policy for schools which, if tailored and adopted by your school, will provide good evidence that you understand your equality obligations and that you have complied with your statutory duties including your PSED and your obligation to publish equality objectives.

From spring 2017, One Education will be launching an equality audit service for schools which will entail a visit to your school, a discussion with governors and/or senior leaders and an assessment and report on your compliance with equality obligations. We will then liaise with you in relation to any follow-up actions required which could include for example:

  • Helping to set up an equalities page on your website
  • Helping to determine or review equality objectives
  • Providing training to staff and governors on equality and diversity issues.

For assistance in relation to any of the HR issues contained in this briefing note, please contact Rachel Foster, HR Director on 0844 967 1112.

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