Headteachers have been warned they are more likely to be held personally liable in discrimination cases, unless they undergo diversity training similar to the compulsory three-day courses offered to police.
A leading employment lawyer told headteachers last week that both local authorities and headteachers could be held liable in cases where an individual claimed they had been the victim of discrimination.
As more autonomy was given to headteachers in Scotland, they were likely to be more susceptible to accusations of discrimination when making staffing or policy decisions, warned Amanda Jones, head of employment at Maclay, Murray and Spens, at an EIS headteachers' conference last week.
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS, said he had seen a definite change from people merely pursuing local authorities to cases where both the employer and the headteacher were subject to legal action.
"When I started working for the EIS as an assistant secretary, it was almost unheard of for anyone to pursue any action of that nature against the individual, primarily because the employer has deeper pockets and there is not much point pursuing someone who doesn't have the resources," he said. "But increasingly, cases are being framed on a `belt and braces' basis, where claims are made against the employer corporately and also against individuals."
This was a serious concern to headteachers in the union, who would be liable to pay damages in the same way as an employer if found guilty of discrimination. Many of them had not received any training on equality and discrimination issues, said Mr Smith.
Ms Jones added: "While large awards of compensation are the exception rather than the rule, the impact of the negative publicity, together with the management time and impact on the school and colleagues can be significant."
Headteachers would encounter applicants for teaching jobs, staff or pupils with "protected characteristics" such as disabilities, pregnancies and maternity, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation, or marriage and civil partnership status, said Ms Jones. Treating them differently because of any of these characteristics would constitute discrimination.
It was therefore crucial that "headteachers are properly equipped to be confident that their decision-making is not tainted by any discrimination, whether that be conscious or unconscious", she added.
Training on discrimination issues should be on a nationally-agreed basis, similar to the training police officers in Scotland receive, rather than on an ad hoc basis, she urged.
"All police officers get a compulsory three-day diversity training course on a national basis and senior officers rotate responsibility for ensuring that diversity matters are addressed appropriately at national level," added Ms Jones.
Mr Smith argued that training would provide a safeguard not only for individuals, but also local authorities: "If you are able to demonstrate that a reasonable level of training has been provided, that contributes to the defence. It is based on the precautionary principle - that you have taken steps to familiarise your staff with the ins and outs of an issue."
Original headline: Lawyers advise heads to undergo diversity training to avoid discrimination charges