A teacher in a classroom of pupils

Equality case studies

Unlawful discrimination examples

Direct discrimination

Example 1
A school finds out that a pupil has been diagnosed as autistic and immediately excludes him from the school play as they suspect he will ‘not be able to cope’ . This is likely to be unlawful direct disability discrimination.

Example 2
A school plans a trip to a natural history museum. A pupil with Down’s syndrome is excluded from the trip as the school believes she will not be able to participate in the activities provided by the museum for school groups. This is likely to be unlawful direct disability discrimination.

Example 3
The admissions tutor for an independent school interviews an applicant who has cerebral palsy which makes her speech unclear. The tutor assumes that the applicant also has learning difficulties and refuses to admit her as he thinks she will be unable to cope with the highly academic environment of the school. This is likely to be unlawful discrimination arising from disability.

Indirect discrimination

Example 1
A pupil with cerebral palsy who is a wheelchair user is told she will be unable to attend a school trip to a local theatre putting on a production of a play she is currently studying in English, because the building is not wheelchair accessible. The pupil and her parents are aware that the play is also on at a theatre in a neighbouring city which is accessible but the school does not investigate this option. This is likely to be direct discrimination because of a disability.

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'.

Read more information on disability discrimination.

Direct discrimination

A mixed sex school attempts to maintain a gender balance in the school by admitting one sex and not another when places are limited. This is likely to be direct sex discrimination and to be unlawful.

Indirect sex discrimination

A school provides a work placement in joinery with a local firm. The school states that it is necessary for any applicant for this course to have taken woodwork at the school as an option in their design and technology course. There is a significant under-representation of girls on both the design and technology course and the woodworking option within that, so this could be considered indirect sex discrimination as it will put girls at a particular disadvantage. In the same school, if pupils want to undertake a work placement in fashion and fabric design, and it is not necessary for them to have undertaken the textiles option in design and technology, this could be a valid comparator to demonstrate indirect sex discrimination..

Read more information on gender discrimination.

Direct discrimination example

After a fight in the school playground between Asian and White pupils, an independent school limits the time the Asian pupils involved in the fight can spend in the playground during lunch hour but does not impose a similar restriction on the White pupils. If ethnicity is one of the causes of the disadvantageous treatment of this group of pupils, this is likely to be direct racial discrimination.

Indirect discrimination example

A school bans 'cornrow' hairstyles as part of its policies on pupil appearances. These hairstyles are more likely to be adopted by specific racial groups. Hence a blanket ban is likely to constitute indirect discrimination because of race as it is unlikely to be objectively justified and proportionate. The criteria although indirectly discriminatory are very close to direct discrimination, in particular if it only applies to a small group of individuals.


A pupil from an Irish Traveller background overhears a teacher on a number of occasions making racial slurs about gypsies and travellers stating their site should be shut down and they were ‘trouble’. This is likely to be harassment related to the protected characteristic of race.

Read more information on racial discrimination.

Direct discrimination

Example 1
A Muslim pupil asks for some flexibility in the school timetable to fit in with his religious commitments linked to the month of Ramadan. He asks not to have to participate in physical education classes held in the afternoon during the month of Ramadan when he will be fasting. This request is denied and he is required to attend PE classes in the afternoon. Another pupil requests some flexibility in the timetable to fit in with his confirmation classes at his church. He is permitted to leave class half an hour early on Fridays. This is likely to be unlawful direct discrimination against the first pupil because of religion or belief.

Example 2
A Catholic school excludes a pupil who has turned away from the Catholic faith and declared himself an atheist. This is likely to be unlawful direct discrimination because of religion or belief.

Indirect discrimination

Example 1
A school requires male pupils to wear a cap as part of the school uniform. Although this requirement is applied equally to all pupils, it has the effect of excluding Sikh boys whose religion requires them to wear a turban. This is likely to be indirect discrimination because of religion and belief as it is unlikely that the school would be able to justify this action.

Example 2
A school instigates a policy that no jewellery should be worn. A young woman of the Sikh religion is asked to remove her Kara bangle in line with this policy, although the young woman explains that she is required by her religion to wear the bangle. This could be unlawful indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief.

Read more information on discrimination against religion and belief.

Direct discrimination

Example 1
During a PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) lesson, a teacher describes homosexuality as 'unnatural' and 'depraved' and states he will only be covering heterosexual relationships in the lesson. A bisexual pupil in the class is upset and offended by these comments. As harassment doesn’t apply to the protected characteristic of sexual orientation in schools, this is likely to be unlawful direct discrimination because of sexual orientation.

Example 2
A pupil who is gay is offered a place at an independent school on the condition that he hides his sexual orientation and pretends that he is straight (heterosexual). This is likely to be unlawful direct discrimination because of sexual orientation.

Example 3
A sixth form pupil is bullied for being bisexual and although he reports the bullying to a teacher no action is taken as the teacher believes that it is just a bit of banter and he deserves 'some teasing' if he is going to say he is bisexual. This is likely to be unlawful direct discrimination because of sexual orientation, rather than harassment.

Read more information on discrimination against sexual orientation.

Direct discrimination

A pupil undergoing gender reassignment is told she will not be able to attend the school camp because they do not have any suitable toilet facilities. This is likely to be less favourable treatment because of gender reassignment, which would constitute direct discrimination.

Read more information on discrimination against transgender.

Case 1 - pregnancy

Pregnant women in the armed forces will be given greater protection from discrimination after a ruling by the Employment Tribunal in 2010. The Equality and Human Rights Commission funded the case brought by a female officer against the Royal Air Force in which she claimed she was removed from her job and had her promotion prospects delayed because she was pregnant.

A law firm represented the officer, who was on a posting in the Falkland Islands when she informed her superiors that she was 12 weeks pregnant. Her request to stay on in her desk-based job was denied, despite her husband, who was also a RAF officer, being based on the Island and she was ordered to return to the UK immediately.

As she wanted to be with her husband during her pregnancy she was forced to take leave to return to the Falkland Islands. This meant she missed out on a performance review which delayed her promotion prospects.

The Tribunal found that the officer had been discriminated against because of pregnancy and awarded her more than £16,000. The Tribunal also recommended that the Ministry of Defence:

  • carry out an individual risk assessment for each pregnant woman and consider adjusting their role to enable them to remain in their post,
  • establish a monitoring process in respect of any removal of a pregnant woman from her post; and
  • undertake a performance appraisal for each pregnant woman commencing maternity leave.

Case 2 - sex

In 2010, more than 4,000 female council workers have won the right to be paid the same as their male colleagues in a case which could lead to payouts worth about £200m.

An employment tribunal found in favour of female workers employed by Birmingham city council in 49 different jobs, including lollipop ladies and cleaners, who complained of being excluded from bonuses – worth up to 160% of their basic pay – paid to men.

All the women were employed in traditionally female-dominated roles, such as cleaning, care and catering, as well as administrative jobs. During the seven-week hearing, the tribunal heard how a man doing the same pay-graded job as a woman could earn four times more than her.

Under a bonus scheme, male refuse collection staff sometimes received up to 160% of their basic pay. In one year a refuse collector took home £51,000, while women on the same pay grade received less than £12,000.

Unions described the women's victory as a 'major' case which could encourage other female public sector workers to bring similar claims.

Case 3 - religion and belief

In 2008 a Muslim girl was awarded £4,000 after the owner of a hair salon refused to employ her because she wears a headscarf.

Bushra Noah, 19, who was rejected for 25 hairdressing jobs, had accused Sarah Desrosiers of discrimination after she failed to offer her a position in May last year. Ms Desrosiers, 32, said she needed staff to display their hairstyles to customers at the Wedge salon in King’s Cross, North London.

Mrs Noah, of Acton, West London, applied for a job as a junior assistant. When she arrived at the salon she claimed that the owner was shocked that she wore a headscarf. Ms Desrosiers told the court she was surprised that Mrs Noah had not mentioned it. She said she needed stylists to reflect the 'funky, urban' image of her salon.

The panel found that Mrs Noah had been badly upset by the 15-minute interview and awarded her £4,000 damages for 'injury to feelings'.

Case 4 - sexual orientation

In 2010 a gay couple won their discrimination claim against the owners of a hotel in a landmark judgment in the Bristol County Court in a case which was funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The judge's ruling in one of the first legal cases taken under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 means that people in civil partnerships will have greater protection from discrimination.

Civil partners Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy sued the owners of the Chymorvah Private Hotel in Cornwall on the grounds they were not allowed to share a double room because they were a gay couple.

The hotel owners, Peter and Hazel Bull, are devout Christians who do not allow couples who are not married to share double rooms because they do not believe in sex before marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Bull maintained that their refusal to accommodate civil partners in a double room was not to do with sexual orientation but 'everything to do with sex'. The owners said the restriction applied equally to heterosexual couples who are not married.

Judge Rutherford ruled that the hotel had directly discriminated against the couple on the ground of their sexual orientation and awarded them compensation of £1,800 each.

Case 5 - age

In 2011, former BBC presenter Miriam O’Reilly won her age discrimination case against the BBC after she was dropped from BBC1's rural affairs show, Countryfile.

O'Reilly, 53, took the BBC to court claiming discrimination after she was one of four female presenters, all in their 40s or 50s, who were dropped from the 23-year-old show. O'Reilly was dropped from the show, along with Charlotte Smith, Juliet Morris and Michaela Strachan, when it was moved from Sunday mornings to a new peak-time slot in April 2009.

The BBC said it chose new 'second tier' presenters for Countryfile over O'Reilly because they had 'substantial network profile that might attract primetime audience' - but the court ruled that this was not the case. 'We consider age to be a significant factor in the decision not to consider O’Reilly.'

In the course of her evidence to the court O'Reilly claimed a Countryfile director had warned her 'to be careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in' nine months before she was axed.

The tribunal said: 'The wish to appeal to a prime-time audience, including younger viewers, is a legitimate aim. However, we do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to such an audience,' the judgment stated.

The presenter, who received compensation from the BBC as a result of this verdict, told MediaGuardian.co.uk: 'Words cannot describe how happy I feel. It's historic and it's going to have huge implications for all broadcasters.'

In light of the court’s ruling, the BBC said it would give additional training to senior editorial executives and issue new guidance on the fair selection of presenters.

For more information about positive action, refer to the Commission's guidance.

Tackling underachievement among ethnic minority boys

A London school experienced issues with under achievement and behaviour among some ethnic minority pupils, particularly boys. It was felt that this was fuelled by issues around deprivation, low expectations within families about schooling and English as a second language.

To take corrective action, the school worked with a charity to develop a project that would improve behaviour, raise aspiration and facilitate a more positive attitude to learning. For one day every two weeks, the boys visited the charity to work with youth workers, who got them involved in positive activities, such as using role-play to resolve conflict, producing plans for their futures and looking at barriers to success and ways in which to overcome these.

Pupils benefited from two terms of work and the evaluation showed that the students attendance to school, academic performance, behaviour and progression all improved.

For more information about the public sector equality duty, refer to the Commission's guidance.

Raising participation / tackling gender stereotyping in sports, both within the curriculum and in out-of-school activities

An Academy in North East England, with mixed sex students, decided that it needed to take action on extremely low levels of participation in sports by female pupils. They also recognised that gender stereotyping in sport for all pupils needed to be tackled. At this time they offered a very limited and 'traditional' sports curriculum and there was a culture of separating male and female pupils for teaching.

The school put together a new equality plan for how they could tackle the issues and this was sent to all stakeholders for input, including school governors, parents, the police and other external agencies.

The equality plan involved:

  • Developing a partnership with a local sports college to help tackle the problem of an under-resourced PE department and to conduct a review of the PE curriculum and extra-curricular activities provided.
  • Offering an enhanced range and quality of PE and sports provision, including a fitness gym, dance, out of school mountain biking etc.
  • Ensuring equality of opportunity for all pupils by making all activities open to female and male pupils.

The schools work on tackling inequality in sports had a significant impact across the school, on both male and female pupils. There was a marked increase in female participation in sport, both in and out of school. There was also a knock on effect on other types of outcomes for all pupils e.g. alertness, concentration, confidence and self-esteem.

Developing a disability equality scheme in a secondary school helps staff and students address discrimination across all strands

In developing its disability equality scheme, Framwellgate (secondary) School in Durham set up a disability equality group drawn from pupils, governors, parents, as well as teaching, support and administrative staff. The majority of group members have a disability or care for a disabled child. The group’s first step was to review school policies. A good amount of time was allocated for this process to enable wide engagement and involvement. Text could also be prepared which was jargon free and pupil friendly. The pupil representatives got feedback from fellow pupils by holding focus groups. By taking enough time, the school felt that it gained a much better understanding of its duties and responsibilities as well as a more thorough appreciation of disability and its impact on pupils, parents and staff.

After this initial review work, the group felt able to develop its action plan and disability equality scheme. This now has wide ownership across the school and is integrated into the business of the organisation. A significant outcome has been the development and self-confidence of the student members. They were treated as equal members of the group and they received formal notice and minutes of meetings, were able to attend meetings in lesson times, and were invited to chair meetings. This has hugely increased the confidence and involvement of the pupils. The pupils have:

  • successfully bid to the governors for money to implement the action plan
  • developed and presented a fully-costed business plan to the group and amended these plans following their own risk assessment
  • evaluated and bought products for the school (disability awareness posters) having negotiated with staff for their display in the achievement centre and the library
  • secured funds from the school business manager for refurbishment of the peer support meeting room.

When the time came to review the scheme, the group decided to widen the terms of reference to include gender and race issues, as well as other issues such as homophobic bullying.

Use of technology to enable college to support disabled students

Stanmore College installed accessible software on all of their computers to assist disabled students. They provided students with Alphasmart word processors which have proved to be very useful with dyslexic students for taking notes. The College developed a more effective means of recording illness such as cancer / diabetes and epilepsy as well as severe allergies so that students can be properly supported both in class and during examinations.

All students who have disclosed a disability or an illness are risk assessed. The new Health and Safety Policy and Procedure also ensure that students are well supported if an emergency arises.

Last updated: 16 May 2016