A teacher in a classroom of pupils A teacher in a classroom of pupils

Understanding equality

Equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents, and believing that no one should have poorer life chances because of where, what or whom they were born, what they believe, or whether they have a disability. Equality recognises that historically, certain groups of people with particular characteristics e.g. race, disability, sex and sexuality, have experienced discrimination. 

The development of Britain’s anti-discrimination laws took place around the 1970s, aiming to tackle unfair discrimination towards some groups of people in education, employment and the provision of services. For example, the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975 to stop discrimination due to a person’s sex. Sex discrimination frequently occurred in the past, particularly in the workplace and specifically towards women. This is one of many anti-discrimination laws that were introduced to protect people with particular characteristics, for example:

  • The Equal Pay Act 1970
  • The Sex Discrimination Act 1975
  • The Race Relations Act 1976
  • The Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  • The Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003
  • The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
  • The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006
  • The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

The Equality Act 2010 was brought in to consolidate and harmonise all previous acts relating to protected characteristics. All the acts mentioned above have been repealed by the Equality Act 2010.

We have made huge progress towards a more equal society. Today the vast majority of us are happy studying, working and making friends with people from other ethnic minorities. Some outdated stereotypes about women have begun to fade. Minority ethnic groups which used to lag far behind in educational performance have begun to catch up. And there have been huge changes in attitudes towards lesbian, gay and bisexual people. A 2007 survey conducted by YouGov indicated that 90% of the British public supported outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Disabled people also have more rights than ever before, and attitudes are gradually changing, with increasing acceptance of the social model of disability. This model proposes that systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) are the ultimate factors defining who is disabled and who is not provided for and accepted in society.

However, many aspects of British life are still not fair. For example:

  • Women still earn significantly less than men for every hour they work.
  • In 2007, 97% of hairdressing apprentices were women, receiving on average £109 per week, and 98% of engineering apprentices were male, receiving on average £189 per week.
  • Disabled adults are three times as likely to have no qualifications.
  • Two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual students report being bullied.
  • Nearly three-quarters of Bangladeshi children and half of Black African children grow up in poverty.
  • Some groups, including certain ethnic minorities and disabled people, are much less likely to hold positions of civic influence.
  • Since the 2010 election, the number of MPs in Parliament who are ethnic minorities is 27 out of 650; - less than half the number it should be if it was a genuine reflection of the proportion of ethnic minorities in the UK, according to the census of 2001.
  • Boys and young men consistently under-perform at every level, from nursery to university.

For more facts and research into equality in Britain, refer to the Commission's Triennial Review - How fair is Britain?

 For definitions of discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes, refer to the glossary.

The Equality Act 2010 brings together for the first time all the legal requirements for the private, public and voluntary sectors, making existing equality laws simpler, more effective and easier to understand.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits all employers, service providers and providers of education, from discriminating against, harassing or victimising individuals with protected characteristics. The Act offers similar levels of protection from discrimination across all the protected characteristics and all sectors, where appropriate – a process called harmonisation. Unlawful discrimination would be things like refusing to admit a child to as school as a pupil because of their race – e.g. because they are from the Gypsy and Traveller Community, or discouraging a female student from undertaking a course in Engineering. Any individual who believes that they have been discriminated against, harassed or victimised as defined by the Equality Act 2010 can take a claim to a tribunal or court. Legal action would normally be started within six months of the unlawful act.

To meet the needs of disabled people, the Equality Act 2010 states that reasonable adjustments can be made for disabled people, and that it is not unlawful discrimination to treat disabled people more favourably than non-disabled people because of their disability.

For more information on the Equality Act 2010, refer to the guidance for schools produced by the Department for Education.

Maintained schools and academies, including free schools, must have due regard to the PSED. This means that they must take active steps to identify and address issues of discrimination where there is evidence of prejudice, harassment or victimisation, lack of understanding, disadvantage, or lack of participation for individuals with protected characteristics.

As the PSED is for all public authorities, it is not defined specifically for schools, but any decisions made on how to take steps to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations must be made on evidence, not on assumptions or stereotypes.

The PSED can be a mechanism for a school to tackle bullying. Schools would need to take proactive steps to identify where bullying was taking place, through information and evidence gathering, and would then need to put into place good practice solutions which demonstrably reduce incidents of bullying, where it is demonstrated this bullying is against particular groups.

The information gathered is crucial in informing the anti-bullying programme. It will also be used to support the new Ofsted inspection framework for schools which includes consideration of pupils acting safely and feeling safe and free from bullying, as key contributory factors in the judgement on behaviour and safety. Information-gathering, such as parent and pupil surveys, will form part of the evidence-base for these judgements.

It is worth highlighting that the Equality Act 2010 deals with the way in which schools treat their pupils and prospective pupils but the relationship between one pupil and another is not within its scope. Therefore, a school would not be conducting unlawful discrimination if one pupil bullied another pupil because they were gay. However, if a school did not treat homophobic bullying as seriously as bullying which relates to other protected characteristics, then it may be guilty of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

The Act also includes provisions for Positive Action, which enables schools to provide additional benefits to some students to address disadvantage, where it is established that individuals with protected characteristics suffer disadvantage, have different needs or have low participation. So it would be positive action to encourage girls to take more science subjects where it was established that they were underrepresented. Taking positive action is also a way that a school can demonstrate it is carrying its duties under the PSED.

Much harmful discriminatory behaviour, such as bullying, comes from a lack of understanding for diverse cultures, lifestyles, beliefs and differences between individuals. Educating young people about identities, diversity, equality and human rights helps them learn to respect, celebrate difference and help tackle prejudice and discrimination.

It is also important that they are aware of the laws that protect them from discrimination, and know how to speak out on issues of concern or how to get help so that every student has equal opportunity to reach their potential and make the most of their lives. When making subject or career choices, accessing education, buying or using services, or making friends with their peers, equality is an important concept that affects young people’s lives every day.

Last updated: 16 May 2016