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:

  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • 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.

More on the risks and promoting resilience.

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.

Campaigns such as Time to Change and Heads Together are movements working to reduce stigma, normalise conversations about mental health and increase community support.

More on discrimination in schools.

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.

LGBTQ+ discrimination

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).

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.

Top tips

Offer support

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.

Speak up

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.

More tips:

  • 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.

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