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Unsure of your equality rights or the law? We can provide advice and assistance for people who feel they have been discriminated against.


Education service

What you need to know

How we can help

The Legislation


Have I been discriminated against because of my race?

If you are treated unfairly because of your race, this may be unlawful discrimination.

‘Racial grounds’ includes your:


  • colour
  • race
  • nationality
  • ethnic or national origins
  • or being a member of the Irish Traveller community.

What is covered?

Schools, further education colleges, universities and bodies responsible for educational establishments such as Education and Library Boards, Boards of Governors, CCMS, are all included.

The Race Relations Order lists the types of educational establishments covered.

Is all race discrimination the same?

No, there are different types of race discrimination, and it doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful. The main forms are -

  • Direct discrimination is where you are treated worse than others because of your race.  

Example: An 11-year-old Afro-Caribbean boy is turned away on his first day at secondary school for wearing his hair in cornrows. The school’s strict uniform code requires a traditional school boys’ haircut or a 'short back and sides’.


  • Indirect discrimination is where an organisation unjustifiably operates a rule or policy that looks the same for everyone but in effect disadvantages people from your particular race.

Example: A rule that employees or pupils must not wear headgear could exclude Sikh men and boys who wear a turban, or Jewish men or boys who wear a yarmulke, in accordance with practice within their racial group.


  • Racial harassment is where a person behaves in a way, on racial grounds, which violates your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Specific examples of racial harassment include:
• assault, ranging from pushing through to physical attacks, grievous bodily harm
• verbal racist abuse ranging from jokes to offensive remarks and comments
• racist graffiti in any form, offensive mail, racist literature

You can be the target of racial harassment in a range of settings that includes:
• Teacher/pupil harassment
• Pupil/teacher harassment
• Pupil/pupil harassment
• Teacher/teacher harassment

For example:  Two pupils from an Irish Traveller background overhear a teacher referring to Traveller people as gypsies. Other comments are that the site where they live should be shut down and that they are ‘trouble’. Although not directed at them, the remarks still make these two pupils feel humiliated and degraded.


  • Victimisation is where you have made a complaint of race discrimination or helped someone else make a complaint about a service provider under the race law.

For example: A teacher constantly picks on a pupil because she supported another pupil’s racial harassment claim against a teacher colleague.


How common is this?

Each year we have advised a small number of individuals with potential complaints with potential complaints on race discrimination in education.

We helped individuals with issues such as:

  • Admissions procedures
  • Racial harassment
  • Non recognition of qualifications gained overseas
  • Appearance and uniform requirements
  • Fees
  • Being retained in a lower class

How am I protected against race discrimination?

You are protected from discrimination in education in the following areas:

  • The admissions policies
  • Access to classes, courses or other benefits, facilities or services provided by the school or college
  • Exclusions or other unfavourable treatment
  • Facilities provided by educational establishments in the public sector


However, there are limited circumstances where race discrimination is allowed where persons from a particular racial group can access facilities and services to meet their additional needs with regard to education, (for example, classroom assistant provision, or parental interpreting service.


What about uniform requirements and racial or religious discrimination?

Schools are allowed to set rules about what pupils should and should not wear at school. However they need to review their policy constantly to ensure that it is not discriminatory on particular racial and religious groups.

They should ensure that the uniform and dress rules do not prevent pupils from ethnic or religious groups from participating in a particular part of school life. For example, if schools require pupils to wear certain clothing for physical education, then this can mean children of certain religions will not be able to participate in these activities.


What are my options?

What can I do myself?

1. Contact our Discrimination Advice Officers who will provide you with free and confidential information and guidance. Should you decide to take your case to court, you can ask for us to provide legal representation. Remember the time limits referred to in the earlier section particularly the need to notify the Department of Education if your complaint concerns certain public sector education.

2. Raise your complaint directly with the education body and seek a resolution. If your complaint relates to harassment you will find that most schools, colleges and universities will have an anti-bullying/harassment policy which sets out how they will investigate and deal with your complaint and support victims.

3. Go directly to court with your own legal representative to lodge a complaint of discrimination.


How can the Equality Commission help me?

1. We provide advice and assistance.

2. We provide legal representation in a limited number of cases.

Only a court decides whether the treatment you have complained of is unlawful discrimination.  It is separate to and independent from the Equality Commission.

Contact us
If you require assistance or would like to make a discrimination complaint, complete our
online form or telephone 028 90 500 600.


Useful publications


Time limits apply

Your complaint of unlawful discrimination in education must be made within six months of the act complained of.  This time limit can be extended by two months by making an application for assistance to the Equality Commission.

Where your complaint relates to certain public sector education (example school) there is a requirement to give two months notice to the Department of Education and in these circumstances the time limit is extended from six to eight months.

Even if you are attempting to resolve problems, the statutory time limits still apply.  You may wish to issue proceedings to protect your legal interests if the matter has not resolved close to the expiry of the time limit.

Where a county court finds in your favour, it may award any of the following remedies:

– an order declaring the rights of the parties
– an injunction or order
– damages, including compensation for injury to feelings
– Where the court finds against a party, that party will normally pay their own costs and the costs of the other party.


< Education service problem

Ask for advice
If you require information or advice please complete our online form. All information you submit is confidential – and if you wish to be contacted by us, please let us know the best way for you. You don’t have to share any personal information with us – we will not be able to identify you if that is your preference.

Make a discrimination complaint
We may be able to provide you with legal assistance. If you want to find out more, please use our discrimination complaint form to tell us the nature of your discrimination complaint and whether it is related to your age, disability, gender, race, religious belief/political opinion or sexual orientation.

Tell us what happened and we will contact you to talk through your complaint further.

Equality Commission NI
Alternatively, contact us:

Telephone: 028 90 500 600

Equality House
7-9 Shaftesbury Square
Belfast  BT2 7DP

We have listed below current legislation relevant to race discrimination. You should note that equality and anti-discrimination law may be changed or updated. The law is also complex and can require interpretation. Please feel free to contact our discrimination advice team if you need clarification or guidance on what the law means. Email: or tel: 028 90 500 600.

Main law:


  • Race Relations (NI) Order 1997 (this link is to the revised version of the statute that incorporates all of the several amendments that were made over the years up to and including 2009)

Amending law:

European Union law:

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