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Want to stay on the right side of the law? We support businesses and public authorities and help them to promote good practice.


Education service providers

Equality law for schools

Education is fundamental to equality of opportunity - as a preparation for life, as a powerful influence on access to and advancement in employment and in giving young people the skills to resist the sectarianism and racism that exists in society.

Schools in Northern Ireland have a responsibility not to discriminate against pupils on the protected grounds of:


  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • race
  • disability.

The law does not apply to age, religious belief and political opinion and gender reassignment in schools.

In relation to this duty, schools are defined as:


  • Grant aided, including controlled schools, controlled integrated schools, voluntary (maintained) schools, voluntary grammar schools, catholic maintained schools grant-maintained integrated schools and Irish medium schools. Grant aided schools include nursery, primary and post primary schools.
  • Independent schools that are totally funded by fees paid by parents or sometimes charitable trust funds.

How are pupils protected against discrimination

It is unlawful for schools to discriminate on one of the protected grounds:


  • In admission to the school, for example, the policies and procedures associated with the assessment of a disabled child to attend your mainstream school. Or offering a pupil who is gay a place at your independent school on the condition that they hide their sexual orientation and pretend that they are straight (heterosexual).
  • In applications, for example, by refusing to accept a pupil for whom English is a second language.
  • In access to any benefits, facilities or services, including education or associated services, add link  for example, by refusing to allow a disabled pupil with behavioural difficulties to attend an after schools club. Or by allowing a boy band to use the music room during lunch breaks to practice but refusing a girl band access to the same facility
  • By excluding a pupil for example, excluding a boy from school for fighting but not excluding a girl for the same offence; or
  • By treating a pupil unfavourably in any other way
  • There is also a general duty on bodies responsible for schools in the public sector to ensure that facilities are provided without sex, sexual orientation, or race discrimination.

Is all discrimination the same?

No. There are different types of discrimination, and it doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful.


The main forms are:


  • direct discrimination
  • indirect discrimination
  • disability-related discrimination
  • failure to comply with a duty to make reasonable adjustments
  • harassment; and
  • victimisation

Are schools liable for the actions of our employees?

You are liable for the actions of your employees that are carried out in the course of their employment whether the act was done with or without your knowledge or approval. This is often referred to as “vicarious liability”.  Thus you would be liable for harassment and bullying or other discriminatory acts by teaching staff, school care takers, kitchen assistants etc.

Are there exceptions?

There are some exceptions (where it is lawful to discriminate) to the general principle of discrimination.

It is lawful to:


  • have admissions to single-sex schools and single sex boarding accommodation in co-educational schools
  • have single-sex teaching groups in co-educational schools, provided the provision to boys and girls is equal
  • confine participation in certain sporting events to competitors of one sex
  • confine male pupils in a female single sex school (or vice versa) to a particular course of study, but only where the admission of the pupils of the opposite sex was exceptional, or where their numbers are comparatively small and they were admitted in order to study that particular subject only
  • treat a pupil or prospective pupil who is disabled less favourably in certain circumstances where this can be justified. For example, under SENDO, where a grant-aided school applies the normal admission criteria drawn up under Article 16 (1) of the Education (NI) Order 1997 or Article 32 (1) of the Education (NI) Order 1998

It should be noted however that exceptions should always be relied upon with caution.


Are different types of discrimination dealt with differently?

Yes, complaints about discrimination in schools are brought to Education and Library Boards, Tribunals and County Courts according to the issue being raised:


  • Sex, sexual orientation and race

Complaints relating to discrimination on grounds of sex, sexual orientation and race in respect of schools must be made to the County Court within 6 months of the date the discrimination took place.


  • Disability discrimination

Disability claims of unlawful discrimination in relation to education in schools must be made by the parent of a disabled child within six months of the act complained of. The claim is made to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) for Northern Ireland.


  • Disability discrimination in relation to expulsions from grant-aided schools

Complaints about disability-related discrimination in relation to expulsions from grant-aided schools are made to the Education and Library Board Expulsion of Pupils Appeal Tribunal within ten days from the date of the principal’s letter to the parents notifying them of their child’s expulsion.


Can we have different rules about hair styles for boys and girls?

You are allowed to have a different uniform policy for boys than girls, however an appearance code is a “living instrument” and there must be a mechanism in place to facilitate and allow change over time.



  • Your uniform policy states that boys are not allowed to have hair touching blazer collars. Girls are not prohibited in the same way although they have to wear long hair tied back and are forbidden from extreme styles and colours.

This is likely to be lawful under the Sex Discrimination Order.

Further information see the court ruling on hair styles: “An application for judicial review by Robert McMillen, [2008] NIQB 21


Can we have rules about school uniforms?

You are permitted to have rules about standards of dress of your pupils. However what is an acceptable form of dress in school depends on what is currently considered to be a “conventional form of dress”.

Smart trousers are now a widely accepted alternative to skirts for women at work, and trousers have practical advantages for school life. Because it is quite normal for girls to wear trousers, there is a strong argument that it is unlawful sex discrimination to deny a girl the opportunity to wear smart trousers as an alternative to skirts as part of a uniform code.

School uniforms can also be problematic for people who hold certain religious beliefs or who are from a particular racial group.


  • A rule that girls must wear knee length skirts could exclude some Muslims, who are required by their religion to cover their legs. For more information on this see the example about head coverings in the indirect discrimination section.
Good practice in schools

Good practice is a term used to describe a combination of specific measures that are taken to overcome or minimise barriers to pupils who may suffer a disadvantage because of a personal characteristic such as their sex, sexual orientation, race or disability. It includes creating an environment in which pupils are able to achieve their potential without being disadvantaged because of this personal characteristic.

Good practice extends beyond the mere letter of the law to include pupils who are disadvantaged because they are trans-gender, or because of their religious belief and political opinion.

Examples of good practice:

A traveller pupil and exclusion

As part of your procedures for investigating and deciding on a punishment, you arrange for parents or guardians of pupils to come into the school and discuss a course of action with the head teacher. In cases where parents cooperate with the head teacher and are shown to be committed to assisting the pupil to manage their behaviour it is less likely that the pupil will face exclusion.


This procedure may indirectly discriminate against the Traveller pupil whose parents may be less likely to come to the school to speak with the head teacher as they face a range of barriers including a lack of confidence in speaking to school staff and a level of mistrust based on a perception that they are not valued by the school community. 


You review your procedures and put specific measures in place to assist Traveller parents, including an outreach programme with a dedicated member of staff to build trust with the parents so they can get more involved in the school community and their child’s education.


This is good practice which can help avoid indirect discrimination.


Gay role models for young people

An English teacher teaching a play by Oscar Wilde makes his pupils aware of the fact that the playwright was gay.

An IT teacher discusses the work of computer programmer Eric Allman who developed sendmail in the late 1970s early 1980s. He makes his pupils aware of the fact that Allman is openly gay.

A PE teacher discusses the skill of the successful tennis star Billy Jean King and makes her pupils aware of the fact that King is gay.


Language barriers in school

You identify that pupils who do not have English as a first language are more likely to underperform in their school work than any other group. To reverse this trend you introduce extra- curricular English classes for pupils, measures to increase parental involvement in the school and a training programme for teachers to help them support minority ethnic pupils in the class room.

This is an example of good practice which could also help avoid discrimination.


Physical disabilities and the playground

You recognise the importance of including children with physical disabilities in mainstream play. You acknowledge that while some of your play ground equipment is inaccessible, disabled children can still be included in play with children who do not have disabilities. You invest in simple easy to use equipment which can be used by teachers and class room assistants to lead all the children in play.

This is an example of good practice and a reasonable adjustment for children with physical disabilities.


Religious segregation and schools

A Catholic school and a neighbouring controlled school catering primarily for Protestant pupils run a “GCSE Engineering and Astronomy” class on a joint basis. Pupils from both schools are taught the course together. This is carried out as part of the “Sharing Education Programme”.

A controlled school permits pupils from a neighbouring Catholic school to join them for some subjects that are not taught at the Catholic school.


Useful links


Further information on the wider areas of law is available from the following education organisations:


Additional information is available from:




Main disability law for eduction

Amending/supplementing laws:

Race Relations (NI) Order 1997
This covers discrimination on 'racial grounds' meaning race, colour, ethnic or national origins, nationality (inc. citizenship). It also prohibits discrimination against Irish Travellers on the ground that they are Irish Travellers.

Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976
The covers discrimination on the grounds of sex including pregnancy and maternity

Equality Act (sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006
This covers discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation

There is also a wider body of legislation which promotes equality of opportunity and the rights of children and young people in education. For example:

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