Equality before the law

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Jane Martin on keeping up with the rules

WE all get sharp reminders of equal opportunities concerns from the headlines, but consideration should be given to equality in all the policy decisions of the governing body. Some governing bodies do have a governor with special responsibility for equal opportunities, others have it in mission statements. How do you score?

Equal opportunities for all pupils and staff means no discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or disability, which is always unlawful. With overall strategic responsibility for the direction of the school, the governing body should ensure that no one is treated less favourably because of their sex, race or disability.

Pupils should not be discriminated against on grounds of sex or race in matters of teaching and learning, standards of behaviour or any other aspect of their education.

The only exception is single-sex sports where physical strength would put female students at a disadvantage, such as football or rugby. But even here mixed schools would have to give girls an equal opportunity to participate in similar sporting activities. While the Sex Discrimination Act does allow for single-sex schools, in others there can be no discrimination in the admissions process.

The new Special Educational Needs and Disability Act will require governors to prepare an accessibility plan, showing how they will make the curriculum, school facilities and buildings more accessible to disabled pupils.

The Act also makes it illegal to dicriminate against a child because of disability. It is expected to come into effect from September 2002.

With delegated authority as the employer of staff, the governing body must not discriminate on the grounds of sex, race, marital status or disability on any matter concerning recruitment and selection, promotion, professional development or discipline. Although the local education authority is technically the employer in a community school, the governing body would be regarded as legally responsible in the case of any complaint and could be the respondent in any employment tribunal discrimination case.

Under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, the governing body as the employer must make reasonable adjustments to the premises if they substantially disadvantage a disabled person.

While factors such as cost and practicability can be taken into account, the governing body would have to justify non-compliance. The Act also covers community use of the premises for disabled groups. The governing body should also ensure that its practices ensure equal opportunities for all to participate. This could include paying expenses for childcare, and holding meetings in an appropriate environment for governors with disabilities.

Further guidance on race discrimination can be found at www.cre.gov.uk, the Commission for Racial Equality website. The code of practice on disability discrimination is at www.disability.gov.uk and the Equal Opportunities Commission provides information at www.eoc.org.uk

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