The Equality Act 2010 is the legislation surrounding the topics of equality and diversity. This can cover all areas of society, but whatever the area, it works on the basis of nine protected characteristics:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnerships
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion and belief
- Sexual orientation
The Act includes a public sector equality duty. This requires public bodies, including education institutions, to:
- Prioritise the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment, and victimisation
- Advance equality of opportunity
- Foster good relations between people with different traits listed as protected characteristics
To achieve this, institutions need to remove or minimise the disadvantages suffered by people from the relevant groups by taking steps to meet their needs and encourage them to participate in group activities. All of this can be tackled by combatting prejudice and promoting understanding between people with differences. These solutions can be particularly effective in educational settings such as schools and universities.
The UK's education sector is required to work in accordance with the European Convention of Human Rights to make sure they are meeting the standards expected of them. This means pushing for:
- Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions
- Freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association with others
What Does This Mean for Education?
Academic staff have a responsibility to deliver teaching and learning that meets the required standards mentioned above. This could mean paying attention to the needs of the students, ensuring you consider inclusivity and accessibility. Additionally, make it clear to students that you have a zero tolerance policy toward discrimination by letting them know the ways you expect them to interact with each other, and deal promptly and efficiently with inappropriate behaviour if it ever occurs. By finding opportunities within your teaching to prompt students to work collaboratively in diverse groups through creative and respectful techniques, you can add value to the learning experience for everyone.
Promoting equality and diversity in education is essential for teachers, academics and students. The aim is to create a learning environment where all students can thrive together and understand that individual characteristics make people unique and not 'different' in a negative way. By stressing this message from early education onwards, it will have an impact on how they treat others right through to higher education such as university degrees or apprenticeships, and beyond.
Discrimination is essentially bullying - something that is all too common in education surroundings such as in school playgrounds.
One 13-year-old girl was bullied due to having autism, a condition that put her within the disability category of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act. Fellow pupils called her names due to her mental health condition, which was present from early childhood and characterised by great difficulty in communicating with others and forming relationships. She not only endured abusive language but was also physically attacked. The perpetrators saw her condition as a difference to exploit.
She told her parents, who complained to the school about the problem. They felt the teachers' response was inadequate and didn't stop the bullying. The situation caused her to feel depressed and isolated, feelings that led to self-harming, and she was forced to move schools as a result.
This highlights how important it is for the education sector to push for diversity and equality. In this case, the school let the girl down and she suffered significant distress due to having to switch schools to escape the problem. Additionally, she may have left the bullies behind, but with her self-esteem at rock bottom and the prominence of social media, the issue wasn't easily 'fixed'. The problem should have been dealt with at its source (the bullies) much quicker, to prevent it from getting that serious in the first place.
Equality and diversity legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 needs to be followed closely within education. All people have the right to education without facing discrimination. Following the available guidelines will allow for educational diversity to become the 'norm' expected throughout all educational settings.