Home Help for families Information & Advice Education Disability discrimination in school
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Disability discrimination is when a disabled pupil is treated worse than a non-disabled child or where a school has not done things differently for a disabled pupil where necessary.
On this page, we'll explain your child's rights not to be discriminated against at school and what you can do if you feel this has happened. There are similar rights for young people in colleges.
The law covering discrimination is the Equality Act 2010. This is a consolidation of previous legislation, including the Disability Discrimination Act. As well as disability, the Equality Act also covers discrimination relating to other ‘protected characteristics’, such as race and sex.
The Equality Act applies to England, Wales and Scotland, with a few differences in each nation, mainly in how you can challenge discrimination. The Equality Act does not apply to Northern Ireland, which has separate legislation. For more information about rights in Northern Ireland, see the website of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, or the Childen’s Law Centre.
The Equality Act applies to:
The act covers:
The definition of disability under the Equality Act is quite wide and is not dependent on a particular diagnosis.
A person is disabled if they have:
A ‘physical or mental impairment’ can include sensory impairments, medical conditions, learning disabilities, mental health conditions, autism, speech and language impairments, and more. There is no requirement for a formal diagnosis, though this is likely to help as evidence of an impairment
‘Long-term’ means a year or more, and ‘substantial’ means more than minor or trivial. Normal day-to-day activities can be physical or tasks such as processing instructions.
There is government guidance on what counts as a disability under the act.
Schools have a number of duties under the Equality Act. Some of these apply to individual disabled pupils and some are general planning duties.
There is more information below about this under types and examples of discrimination
The PSED applies to all state funded schools, including Academies. This is a duty to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic, such as disability, and those who don’t. Schools must have regard to PSED in everything they do, so disability issues should not be treated in a separate silo.
All schools, including independent schools, must publish an accessibility plan that sets out how they will improve access for disabled pupils in the following areas:
Local authorities in England and Wales have a similar duty to publish an accessibility strategy. This sets out how they plan to improve access in maintained schools in the area. In England, the accessibility strategy may be available on the local authority’s ‘local offer’ site.
Schools should be looking ahead at how they can do things differently for disabled pupils if necessary. They don’t have to wait until a disabled pupil joins the school.
Below we look at some types of discrimination, with brief examples. We go onto explain what you can do if you think your child is being discriminated against.
It is always unlawful to treat a pupil less favourably simply because the pupil is disabled.
Below are some examples of direct discrimination:
There are no circumstances in which direct discrimination is lawful.
This relates to a ‘provision, criterion or practice’ which:
A provision, criterion or practice might be a written school policy or just the way things are generally done within the school. The most common instance of indirect discrimination is where schools have ‘blanket policies’ that apply to all pupils without exception.
The school should look at allowing an exception to the policy in these particular cases.
This is less favourable treatment:
Some examples of likely discrimination arising from disability:
The school must know of the disability beforehand for it to be discrimination. And the school’s actions may be justified if they are a proportionate means – for example excluding a pupil with autism who has trashed a classroom – to achieve a legitimate aim – in this case, providing a safe and orderly learning environment.
However, the school’s actions are unlikely to be justified if the school has not looked at reasonable adjustments as a first resort.
The reasonable adjustments duty is the duty to take ‘such steps as are reasonable to avoid disadvantage’ for disabled pupils. It relates to:
Failure to make a reasonable adjustment for a disabled child would count as discrimination under the Equality Act
In essence this means that schools do not have to treat disabled children exactly the same as all other children. A school must look at doing things differently if a disabled child is at a significant disadvantage. Reasonable adjustments need not be complicated or expensive. Some examples of reasonable adjustments might be:
What is reasonable is not defined in law. When looking at making a reasonable adjustment, a school can take into account:
A large secondary school will be expected to do more than a small village primary. A school cannot charge parents for making reasonable adjustments.
Here’s a more detailed example:
The reasonable adjustment duty is anticipatory. This means that schools should look ahead to what disabled pupils may need in the future.
If you feel your child has been discriminated against, it is always best to try to sort things out informally with the school first.
Make an appointment to talk to your child’s class teacher, head of year or the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO). Explain carefully how your child’s disability affects them in school and how they are being disadvantaged. It may be helpful to make practical suggestions as to how the school can put things right, for example:
If this doesn’t resolve the situation you can look at a formal approach. This might be:
You should be able to find the school’s complaints procedure on the school website. It may have several stages. Commonly these are informal resolution, written complaint to the headteacher, written complaint to the governors. At the final stage you may be able to put your case in person to a panel of governors.
If the discrimination is serious or repeated you may want to consider making a legal claim.
In England, the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability) handles cases involving schools, both state-funded and independent. The tribunal does not, however, hear claims relating to admissions to state-funded schools as these are dealt with through the local appeal process.
The tribunal cannot award monetary compensation, but it can order things like an apology, staff training, extra tuition or activities, a change to the school’s policies, and reinstatement for permanently excluded pupils.
The County Court handles cases involving further education (FE) institutions and service providers, for example early years settings. The County Court can award compensation.
The situation in the other UK nations differs slightly and is explained in the table below, along with a summary of how England cases are dealt with.
The time limit for making a discrimination claim is six months from the alleged discriminatory act or from the last in a series of discriminatory acts.
The Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) may be able to help you decide on the best course of action in your case. EASS covers England, Wales and Scotland.
Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance:
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