The law - Sexual orientation discrimination

19th October 2007 at 01:00
In the 1990s a lesbian teacher who "came out" sued her school for failing to prevent pupils from taunting her. She claimed that this caused her stress that resulted in long-term illness. After many years of argument in the courts, the House of Lords decided that the bullying she described was disturbing but did not amount to the sex discrimination she claimed. It was sexual orientation discrimination. Unfortunately for her, sexual orientation discrimination was not an offence at that time. Now it is.

Sexual orientation regulations make it unlawful to discriminate against gays and lesbians in any employment practices. The regulations also put an onus on employers to take action against any employee who bullies or harasses a fellow employee. Governors and heads must do everything that is reasonably practicable to ensure that pupils do not harass school staff too. Failure to do this means that the school or local authority could be sued or even prosecuted.

New regulations this year made such discrimination unlawful in school education as well as employment, meaning that pupils now have the right to seek redress in the courts.

Government guidance urges schools to ensure that gay or lesbian pupils - or the children of lesbian and gay couples - are not singled out for different or less favourable treatment than others. Neither must any practices in the school lead to potential sexual orientation discrimination.

Instances of homophobic bullying, as well as bullying on any other grounds, must be taken seriously. It will not be sufficient just to punish a guilty pupil. The law requires the school to take positive steps to eliminate such behaviour.

Through its Gender Equality Scheme, each school should show how it is setting about eradicating all gender discrimination. These had to be in place in secondary schools last April and in primary schools by the end of this year.

Chris Lowe, Former headteacher and legal adviser to trade unions.

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