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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

Have I been discriminated against because of my sex?

If you have been treated unfairly because of your sex, this may be unlawful discrimination.  Girls, boys, women, men, married people and pregnant females are all covered.

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.

Article 24 of the Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976 lists which types of educational establishments are covered.

Is all sex discrimination the same?

No. There are different types of sex 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 sex.  

Example 1: A female pupil is actively discouraged from pursuing an engineering course by a teacher on the basis that it would be unsuitable for a woman.

Example 2: A 16 year old female pupil due to take exams is suspended from a Catholic grammar school because she is visibly pregnant. She is told by the school Principal not to return to class until after her baby is born, and that notes/instructions will be sent home and her work marked. The school agrees to make arrangements for her to sit her examinations outside the school. 


  • 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 sex.

For example: You may find that a course you are interested in enrolling on  has specific entry requirements that you do not have and that fewer people from your sex would have, and they are not necessary.


  • Victimisation is where you have made a complaint of sex discrimination or helped someone else make a complaint under sex discrimination law.

Example:  A teacher constantly picks on a pupil because she supported another pupil’s sexual harassment claim against a teacher colleague.


  • Sexual harassment is where you are the target of unwanted behaviour that is of a sexual nature, and / or you find that because of your sex your dignity is violated by an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It is also where you are treated worse because you have accepted or rejected sexual advances.

For example if a teacher (or any school employee) stipulates that your grade (or participation on a team, in a play, etc.) will be based on whether you submit to unwelcome sexual conduct.

You can be the target of sexual harassment in a range of settings that include:

• Teacher / pupil harassment
• Pupil / teacher harassment
• Pupil/ pupil harassment
• Teacher / teacher harassment


How am I protected against sex discrimination?

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

  • Admissions policies
  • Access to classes, courses or other benefits, facilities or services provided by the school or college; for example girls and boys should have the same access to the school curriculum
  • Exclusions or other unfavourable treatment
  • Facilities provided by educational establishments in the public sector.


However, there are circumstances where sex discrimination is allowed in education such as:

  • Single- sex schools and single-sex boarding accommodation in co-educational schools.
  • Single-sex teaching groups in co-educational schools are also lawful, provided the provision to boys and girls is equal.

Can a school uniform policy be discriminatory?

So far, there is no decided case law on sex discrimination arising from school uniform policies in Northern Ireland. Schools are allowed to set rules about what pupils should and should not wear at school. However, it is good practice for schools to review school uniform requirements regularly to ensure that they reflect current conventions on dress.


For example: A pupil, Nadia Coyle, took a case against the Board of Governors of St Joseph’s Grammar School in Donaghmore. She argued that in light of what is now conventional dress for girls, it was unlawful sex discrimination to deny a girl the opportunity to wear smart trousers as an alternative to a skirt. The case was settled out of court in 2007 and the school subsequently changed its policy allowing female pupils to wear trousers.


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 to the county court within six months of the date of the act complained of.

Where your complaint relates to certain public sector education (example state schools) 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.

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 complaint form to tell us the nature of your discrimination complaint and whether it is related to your age, disability, sex, 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 sex 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.

Refers to:
Sex discrimination
Pregnancy & maternity discrimination
Marital/Civil partnership status discrimination


Main law:

  • Sex Discrimination (NI) Order 1976 (this link is to the revised version of the statute that incorporates all of the many amendments that were made over the years up to and including 2008)


Amending laws:


Nadia's Story
In 2005 Nadia was a pupil at a co-educational grammar school that did not allow girls to wear trousers as part of their uniform.  Nadia chose to wear trousers to school and was asked by a teacher why she was wearing them as they were not permitted for girls.

Nadia asked the school to reconsider their uniform policy and to allow female pupils to wear trousers.  The school refused and, alleging sex discrimination, Nadia took a case to the County Court which was settled with the school agreeing to pay £1000 to a local charity.  The uniform policy was subsequently changed to allow female pupils the option of wearing school uniform trousers.

Read more of our case decisions and settlements

Michaela's story
Michaela has spinal muscular atrophy, uses a wheelchair and depends on carers.  She wanted to study genetics and needed to change schools to take A level chemistry.

Michaela identified a suitable college and, after meeting with them, believed she was accepted.  However the college phoned her later to say she had to undergo a separate admissions procedure.

She complained that this was disability discrimination and the case was settled with the Commission’s help.  Schools and colleges are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students to enable them to have the same access to education as those who do not have a disability.  As a result of Michaela’s case, the Southern Education & Library Board took steps to ensure that schools under its management understand their obligations to disabled students.

Read more of our case decisions and settlements
A teacher's story
Julie has taught at Larne Grammar School since 1985. She was awarded more than £5,000 after a tribunal found she was the victim of indirect sex discrimination.

Julie had been appointed as head of year in 2008 but had to relinquish the post between 2008 and 2010 when she reduced her working week for childcare reasons. In 2010, she returned to full-time work and resumed the head of year role but in 2011 again reduced her hours for the purposes of childcare. She was again required to give up the head of year post and, at that stage, lodged a claim of indirect sex discrimination.

The school had defended its policy saying that important pastoral care responsibilities meant that a head of year had to be employed full-time. However, the tribunal found that making Julie stand down from the role was not a proportionate way of "achieving the legitimate objective of securing pastoral care for pupils at the school."

Read more of our case decisions and settlements

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