Education: your rights

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 Some of the information on this page may be out of date.

You have the right not to be discriminated against because of your sex. This applies whether you are already a student or you are in the process of applying to an education provider for a place.

Discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity is not specifically prohibited in education as it is at work. However, if you are discriminated against because of your pregnancy at school or college, you may still have suffered sex discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Young people: know your rights

Here you can find information about rights regarding sex discrimination and equal pay, aimed at young people. It covers career choices, training, apprenticeships, further and higher education, getting a job and in work, and where you can go for advice and help.

This site is aimed primarily at young people, but also is a useful resource for parents, employers, lecturers and service providers.

Visit: Young people: know your rights

Single-sex schools

It is not unlawful for single sex schools to discriminate on the grounds of sex. Schools that were previously single sex but are becoming coeducational can apply for a temporary exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act during the transition period.

Education outside schools and colleges

The sections of the Sex Discrimination Act dealing with education only cover discrimination by the specific types of institution named in the Act.

Some course, particularly vocational courses, are commonly offered by other types of organisation (for example, private training companies), and are therefore not covered by the Sex Discrimination Act.

However, these organisations still have responsibilities as employers or service providers to avoid discrimination. If you think you have experienced sex discrimination, you may be able to bring a case against them as an employer or as a service provider. For more information, see Sex discrimination in employment and Sex discrimination: consumer rights.

Part-time study

Because many more women than men choose to work or study part time, indirect sex discrimination is often the result of more general discrimination against part-time workers or students.

For example

If you are studying full-time for a postgraduate degree but want to change to part-time study to look after your baby, the university might be guilty of indirect sex discrimination if they refuse to let you change your pattern of study or cut your funding.

School uniform

It is not unlawful for a school to have rules about the standard of dress of its pupils. There has been no legal case decided by the courts on the question of whether different school uniform regulations for boys and girls would be discriminatory under the Sex Discrimination Act. 

A lot depends on what is currently considered to be a ‘conventional form of dress’. Smart trousers are now a widely accepted alternative to skirts for women at work, and trousers have practical advantages for school life.

Because it is quite normal for girls to wear trousers, there is a strong argument that it is unlawful sex discrimination to deny a girl the opportunity to wear smart trousers as an alternative to skirts as part of a uniform code.

Since skirts are not currently a conventional form of dress for boys, it is probably not unlawful on the basis of current legal authority to prevent boys wearing skirts.

The same considerations apply to rules about haircuts and jewellery: in the light of current conventions on dress, it is likely to be lawful to deny boys the option of having long hair or wearing earrings. There have been no decided cases about dress codes in school and the outcome of a legal challenge would be uncertain.

Taking part in sport at school

Girls and boys must have the same access to the school curriculum and must be given exactly the same subject options and the same amount of subject teaching. This includes physical education courses.

Example

A girl is told she cannot take part in cricket and football during school games lessons, because these are deemed to be ‘boys only’ by her school. This is very likely to be unlawful sex discrimination.

The Sex Discrimination Act makes an exception to this rule where the activity is ‘of a competitive nature’ and ‘where the physical strength, stamina or physique of the average woman puts her at a disadvantage to the average man’.

This exception might allow schools to have separate boys and girls teams for some sports. It may possibly extend to allowing girls and boys to be separated in sports lessons, but only if the lessons could be said to be competitive.

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