If a parent makes a complaint which alleges that there has been discrimination, it is important to carefully consider this aspect of the complaint.
Sometimes a parent may not use the word ‘discrimination’ or refer to the Equality Act 2010 but if they are suggesting that a child is at a disadvantage because of a protected characteristic (for children this will usually be sex, race, disability, religious belief, sexual orientation or gender reassignment), then this should be considered as a discrimination issue. For disability issues, if a child has special educational needs or it is suggested that a child may be disabled then again this should be carefully considered.
Discrimination can take many forms, this could be direct, indirect, harassment (where there is unwanted conduct which creates an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading humiliating or offensive environment…’ or victimisation (which is where a person is at a disadvantage for asserting their legal rights). Where a child is disabled there is also a duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove the disadvantage which a child faces.
In practice, allegations of discrimination are most likely to arise when disciplinary action is taken against a child. If a child is disabled and has behavioural problems then policies need to be adapted to take account of the disability. Where there are allegations of racist or homophobic bullying, then this will also need to be handled sensitively and appropriately. Further, there has been recent media coverage of the particular needs faced by students undergoing a gender transition.
The starting point for reducing the risk of legal action is to create an inclusive environment within the school. This can be done by ensuring that all staff are aware of the Equality Act 2010 and their duties under it and making sure that this is properly reflected in a school policy covering equality and inclusion. But what is key is to make sure that when making any decision around a child to properly consider if there are potential discrimination issues and then ensuring that there is appropriate consideration of those issues and properly recording it.
If you would like more information on this topic, please contact our specialist Education Law team.