Disability discrimination in schools

New law in force

The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010. Some of the information on this page may be out of date.

Parents and the education system

Since September 2002, if your child has a disability and has been discriminated against in education, you may be able to challenge this under the DDA.

Please also note that in addition to the legislation about discrimination in schools, there is separate legislation covering special educational needs and improving accessibility.

Schools also have a duty under the DDA to make reasonable adjustments for disabled parents, such as by providing interpreters at parents’ evenings.

Types of disability discrimination in school

Each school has a ‘responsible body’ who is ultimately responsible in law for making sure that the school complies with its legal duties under the DDA. Depending on which school your child attends, and whether you live in England, Wales or Scotland, the responsible body may vary. Find out more about responsible bodies in education providers.

Discrimination in education may take two forms: less favourable treatment of a disabled child, which the school cannot justify, and failure to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure the child is not at a substantial disadvantage, compared with others.

Examples of less favourable treatment

  • A school refuses a child’s application to go to that school because he has a disability and the school does not want any disabled children.
  • A school refuses to let a child go on a school trip because she has diabetes.

In some cases, the school may be able to justify treating your child ‘less favourably’ if it can show that it did so for a ‘material and substantial’ reason. This means that the reason must relate to your child’s particular case and be significant enough to justify discrimination.

In addition, education authority schools in Scotland may only select pupils for admission if such arrangements have been approved by Scottish ministers.

Less favourable treatment may also be justified if it is the result of a permitted form of selection on ability or aptitude.

Examples of failure to make reasonable adjustments

  • A deaf pupil who lip-reads is at a substantial disadvantage because teachers continue speaking while facing away from him to write on the board
  • A pupil with dyslexia is told she cannot have her teacher’s lesson notes, and that she should take notes during lessons ‘like everyone else’.

How does disability discrimination in schools differ from the rights of children with ‘special educational needs’ (SEN)?

The Education Act 1996 and the Education (Scotland Act) 1980 define children as having SEN if they have a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision.

Not all disabled children have SEN. For example, if your child has severe asthma, he or she may not have SEN, but may have a disability under the DDA. Alternatively, your child could have SEN but not come within the definition of ‘disability’ under the DDA.

The DDA does not require schools to provide ‘auxiliary aids and services’ such as sign language, interpreters or information formats such as Braille or audiotape. These can be provided through the SEN framework, which individually assesses your child’s special educational needs.

Accessibility in schools

Education authorities and schools (and responsible bodies in Scotland) also have a legal planning duty to use accessibility strategies to improve access to education for disabled children. These plans should be made available to parents and should include:

  • improvements in access to the curriculum
  • physical improvements to increase access to the school buildings and
  • improvements in the way information is provided for disabled children. This may include Braille, audiotape or large print formats.

In Scotland, these plans are also sent to the Scottish government, which will oversee progress made throughout Scotland through the strategies.

What do schools and responsible bodies need to do?

Schools are expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to meet the needs of disabled children who might become pupils. So schools should think about the broad range of needs of pupils with different disabilities. However, this does not include making changes to school buildings to make them accessible, or providing specialist equipment or support. These areas are dealt with under special educational needs legislation and guidance (the SEN framework) and the planning duty on accessibility strategies for schools, local education authorities and responsible bodies, described above.

Schools should regularly review their policies, practices and procedures to ensure that disabled children are not at a disadvantage because of their disability.

For more information on the responsibilities of education providers, see Guidance for education providers: schools.  

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