When children are treated unfairly and discriminated against because of who they are, this can have a detrimental effect on their mental health, their self-esteem, and their educational performance.
It is important that schools understand who might be at risk of discrimination, what they should do to minimise discrimination, and how they can buffer and support children and families who may be at risk of being discriminated against.
What is discrimination?
Discrimination is when a person is treated unfairly because of who they are. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful if an education provider, such as a school, treats you unfairly because of:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation.
It is not unlawful for schools to discriminate against you because of your age.
Direct and indirect discrimination
- Direct discrimination is when a child is treated differently (at school or in their community) because of one, or more, of the above characteristics.
- Indirect discrimination is when a child is treated in the same way as other pupils, but it has an adverse effect on that child because of who they are. So, for example, if a school policy is applied in the same way to everyone but, as a result, puts a disabled pupil at a disadvantage.
Risk to mental health
Being discriminated against is a risk factor for poor mental health. Children who experience discrimination will be affected - and react - in different ways. This often depends on the following:
- how confident the child is to ask for help
- the level of support a child receives
- the number of other risk factors the child faces
- how resilient the child is.
Children who experience discrimination may:
- feel different to other children in some way, or “less than”; can also impact their feeling of belonging or how they see their identity
- have lower self-belief or self-worth
- feel powerless and frustrated
- have reduced aspirations
- struggle to reach their full potential
- may be at higher risk of being bullied.
Racial and religious discrimination
Children can experience discrimination due to their ethnicity, as well as their faith, beliefs, culture or language – whether perceived or real.
This can increase children’s vulnerability by:
- making them feel different, that they don’t belong or aren’t good enough
- leading them to focus on negative images, media stories etc., that devalue certain people and groups
- limiting their opportunities both within and outside of the educating setting
- being exposed to race- or faith-based bullying.
We know many people can feel shame and stigma as a result of mental illness. This can be more common, intense and severe for members of some black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities – leading to families being fearful about opening up discussions and sometimes hiding early signs and symptoms.
Schools need to be aware of these issues when opening up a conversation with families and children on mental health and wellbeing. You may need to help parents and carers think through the process of seeing mental health as a spectrum, and how risks and protective factors play a role in children’s mental health.
“It’s the negativity, as a child, being told you can’t do things, people in power and in authority saying you can’t do things. Even family saying you can’t do things.”
“It's psychologically damaging to think, at that young age, that you're different, that you can't do anything and that your life is almost over before it begins. So when you're almost mentally segregated and pushed away, well - it’s going to cause immense mental problems.”
“People become what is expected of them, they become what’s expected… they play up, they disrupt, they become the class joker.”
Quotes from young African Caribbean men who were interviewed for a Centre for Mental Health report.
As part of growing up, children and young people discover their identity and begin to develop a sense of who they are. This may include exploring their gender (e.g. their gender identity) and the different ways they express their gender, and who they are attracted to (e.g. their sexual orientation).
As they develop, some children and young people may explore different ways of being which does not conform to dominant forms of gender identity or sexual orientation. Some children may identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, non-binary, and queer (LGBTQ+) during primary school years.
LGBTQ+ young people are at greater risk of experiencing poor mental health if they aren’t accepted, understood or given the right support.
LGBTQ+ young people have reported experiencing:
- social isolation
All these can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem, wellbeing and mental health over time.
What can schools do?
Children need to learn in a safe, caring and respectful environment which embraces and conveys positive messages about their identity, diversity, and faith.
This feeling of belonging is important to their wellbeing, and to their academic achievement.
Schools can start developing tolerance early in all children by using health and wellbeing lessons, as well as other cross-curricular activity, to help children:
- learn about diversity and cultures (including different faiths)
- develop good relationships, and understand the importance of respecting others
- develop their social and emotional skills through collaborating and learning about empathy.
Those who have experienced any type of discrimination – or are at risk – should be offered extra support to minimise long-term risks. This could be through pastoral care or school counselling, school nurses or through referral to community-based support.
Prevent and challenge discrimination
It’s important to celebrate diversity and address prejudice from early years foundation stage upwards. Be aware that children from ethnic and religious groups may experience negative stereotypes which can undermine their wellbeing and sense of self.
Encourage pupils to speak out against unfairness or any kind of discrimination. Be alert early on for the different ways in which children might be communicating that something is wrong. Think creatively about adjustments that might help them thrive and achieve.
- Make sure classroom settings and lesson plans are inclusive
School and classroom posters, pictures, books, music, toys, dolls and other materials should be diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, faith, gender, age, family situations, and disabilities.
- Implement policies and offer staff training
Among school staff, there needs to be a culture of reflection and of challenging behaviour, language and attitudes. Training is important along with good links with neighbourhood organisations to support children from all types of communities. Schools can provide a platform for inspirational and relatable role models to speak in schools and support children through peer mentoring.
- Engage families and communities
Help all types of families to feel included and ensure they are supported in the context of a wider whole-school ethos about respect for others, celebrating difference, equality, diversity, fairness and justice.
View our handy printable tip sheet for more information and guidance on how all staff can address and prevent discrimination in schools.