When the government published their Valuing People white paper in 2001, they clearly outlined their desire to protect and discourage discrimination against disabled, learning disabled and special needs people. It also wanted them to have the same life opportunities as other people, as well as achieving social inclusion within their community. In line with these views, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 was created to help establish legal rights for disabled and special educational needs children in compulsory and post-16 education, training and other student services. It extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and sought to eradicate unjustified discrimination against students and adult learners that are disabled, making such cases of discrimination unlawful. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 legislated that it is against the law for goods, services and facility providers to discriminate against disabled people by treating them less favourably due to their disability.
If someone is adamant that this sort of discrimination is justified, they would be required to show why such action should be regarded as reasonable. The DDA 1995 did not, however, extend as far as encompassing education providers. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 was created in order to tackle discrimination in this sphere and extend the DDA 1995. Under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, schools, colleges, universities, adult education providers, statutory youth services and local education authorities were required to make the same sort of reasonable adjustments for disabled people as stipulated in the DDA 1995. The aim of including these groups, organisations and bodies in the Act was to ensure that disabled people were offered the same opportunities and choices as those in mainstream society. It was also designed to make sure that where possible, disabled people have the right to be able to work at their fullest capacity and have the chance to fulfil their potential.
The Equality Act was introduced in October 2010 to replace a range of anti-discrimination legislation which existed prior to this time. It aims to bring together the Equal Pay Act 1970, Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in order to protect people and to prevent services from discriminating against any group; be that gender, race or disability. The way in which this Act relates to schools is that they are required to promote inclusion and disability and race equality for all. It is against the law for anyone to discriminate, either directly or indirectly, and schools should actively promote equal opportunities and positive relationships between all groups of children. It is also a statutory requirement for schools to encourage the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream schools.
The Act provides a single, consolidated source of discrimination law. It simplifies the law and it extends protection from discrimination in some areas. The exceptions to the discrimination provisions for schools continued to aspects such as, content of the curriculum, collective worship and admissions to single sex schools and schools of a religious character. The Act defines four kinds of unlawful behaviour; direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The Act also deals with the way in which schools treat their students and prospective students; therefore the relationship between one student and another is not within its scope.
It does not therefore bear directly on such issues as racist or homophobic bullying by students. However, if a school treats bullying which relates to a protected ground less seriously than other forms of bullying, for example dismissing complaints of homophobic bullying or failing to protect a transgender student against bullying, then it may be guilty of unlawful discrimination. The school’s responsible body is liable for breaches of the Equality Act.
For maintained schools this will be the local authority or the governing body, depending upon how responsibilities are split; for an independent school, academy or free school, this will be the proprietor. The responsible body will be liable for the actions of the school’s employees and agents unless it can show that it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination harassment or victimisation from taking place. Individuals working at school must also not discriminate against pupils or against their colleagues. If they do breach the Act, they may be held personally responsible and liable for their own actions.