Closing the book on discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 places a responsibility upon all publicly funded schools to protect students and teachers from harassment that is prejudice-based. Whether a school is a faith one, a free one, a maintained one or an academy, the act applies. Despite popular myths, there are no exceptions. A school must not engage in any activity that promotes discrimination, whether that is through its delivery of the curriculum, its policy on admissions or by ignoring some forms of bullying when they are reported.
The act identifies 10 protected characteristics: age, breastfeeding, disability, gender reassignment, maternity, pregnancy, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Not all may seem applicable but it is likely that most have relevance to the ways our schools operate today.
Take, for example, primary schools: they may not have students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but they may have parents who do and yet be unaware of this. So my first question to teaching colleagues is: "Are letters and booklets sent out by your school equality system proofed for the consideration of all parents and carers?"
In February 2012, The Telegraph newspaper reported on the case of five-year-old Zachary Avery, the youngest diagnosed case of gender identity disorder in childhood (GIDC) in the UK. Zachary lives his life as a girl. His primary school has changed its toilet block so that it is gender-neutral but this is, of course, only the first of a series of adaptations that Zachary's schools will have to make as he grows older.
Secondary leadership teams also have much to consider - for example, how would they support students who are pregnant or breastfeeding?
At first, I suspect that some of these questions may seem unnecessary, alarmist or redundant. But if your school can adapt quickly to any or all of the issues I have presented then my next question is, can you demonstrate it? If your school cannot, does it have the potential to make adjustment and provide the necessary evidence for Ofsted inspectors?
The new Ofsted inspection framework states that, to achieve an outstanding verdict in addressing the behaviour and safety of students, schools need to show that parents, staff and students are unreservedly positive about behaviour and safety.
Additionally, schools need to show that students' behaviour is "impeccable", and that they are aware of the different forms of bullying that exist and actively seek to prevent them.
The leadership team must show that the curriculum has had "a very positive impact on all students' behaviour and safety", and how the children's spiritual, moral, social and cultural development includes "awareness of and respect for diversity in relation to, for example, gender, race, religion and belief, culture, sexual orientation and disability".
The combined effect of the Equality Act and the new Ofsted framework means that how students interact and how a school models its promotion of equality and diversity will have an impact on its overall success. If equality measures have not been implemented in an effective way this will limit the overall rating by inspectors.
So, how would your school fare? Just ask yourself the following questions:
For leadership teams
Can you demonstrate that your school challenges discrimination and responds effectively to prejudice-based bullying?
Can you demonstrate how all forms of bullying, including cyber-bullying and prejudice-based bullying, are monitored?
Can you show where in the curriculum you challenge discrimination and foster respect for the different characteristics underpinning the Equality Act 2010?
Do you have a record of the resources you use to challenge discrimination and promote equality?
For governors and directors
Does your school offer an environment that supports equality and diversity?
Do you provide a welcoming environment for parents, ensuring that publications and letters sent by the school are non-discriminatory?
Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University. He is co-author of Developmental Trends in Peer Victimisation and Emotional Distress in LGB and Heterosexual Youth, which appears in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.