Dr Diane Bebbington discusses new human rights initiative the Commission For Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), which aims to support equality and diversity, and its implications for the education of young people

Recent years have seen major developments in legislation to promote equality and diversity. These include the passing of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act in 2000 and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act in 2001. In addition, European Union directives have required member states to further develop anti-discriminatory legislation in the areas of sexual preference, age, religion and belief and race.

Processes are currently underway to set up a new body in the UK – the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). This will come into being in 2007 and bring together the existing equality bodies – the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. In anticipation of the establishment of CEHR, the government asked the Equalities Review Panel to set out the extent of ‘chronic and persistent inequalities in the UK’. In this article, the findings of the panel’s interim report are discussed in relation to the education of young people.

Educational dis/advantage

Previous issues of PSHE & Citizenship Update have drawn attention to the link between educational achievements and different forms of inequality. Tanya Barron (PSHE & Citizenship Update, issue 51, p8) for instance, states that only 2% of all disabled children worldwide go to school. The interim report looks at the implications of socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference and disability on achievements and experiences of education amongst school-age children and young adults. It tries to deal with the crosscutting nature of these different ‘strands’ of inequality.

In terms of socioeconomic status, eligibility for free school meals is generally used as an indication of child poverty. Receipt of free school meals normally correlates with poorer educational performance at every key stage. It also increases the likelihood of poor performance in most ethnic groups. However, differences are evident amongst ethnic groups; for example, the data show a large gap in achievement between White British pupils receiving free school meals and those who are not receiving free school meals, whereas for Bangladeshi children (more are likely to be receiving free meals than any other ethnic group) the chances of gaining qualifications by the end of Key Stage 4 are not influenced by whether or not they receive free school meals. Educational outcomes may also be examined in relation to gender and ethnicity. The risk of permanent exclusion from school is much higher among Black and Mixed Race young people compared with their White and Asian counterparts, but it is also much more common among boys compared with girls in all ethnic groups.

These interplays between ethnicity and socio-economic status and ethnicity and gender underline the need for a holistic approach to equality and diversity, a more complex perspective from which to view equality and diversity, but one with which the CEHR will somehow have to grapple.

Gaps exist in our knowledge on the school performance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. However, there are major concerns regarding homophobic bullying in schools and higher levels of absenteeism, self-harm and suicidal tendencies amongst these groups. Evidence also shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils are more likely to leave school at 16 compared with their straight peers, even though they perform equally well at GCSE.

Data are also lacking with regard to disability. However, children with a statement of special educational need have lower than average educational achievements compared to pupils with no identified special need or those with a special educational need without a statement. Evidence presented by the Equalities Review Panel shows that children with statements perform least well in English at every key stage and on a variety of measures of GCSE performance.

The lack of comprehensive data on sexual preference and disability in terms of school outcomes represents only two aspects of the ‘data gap’. The Equalities Review Panel identifies many gaps pointing out, for example, that statistics on religion and belief have only been collected since the 2001 census. No doubt other gaps in statistics will become apparent as the work of the CEHR progresses.

The commission states that it will be an independent body which champions:

  • the reduction of inequalities
  • the elimination of discrimination
  • the strengthening of good relations between people
  • the protection of human rights.

As well as taking the powers of the existing commissions, it will have new powers to enforce legislation and promote equality. There has been concern from some groups that a single commission will fail to represent their interests adequately. However, the CEHR believes it will be more able to tackle discrimination on multiple levels where for example, people experience more than one type of discrimination.

One stakeholder commented on the complexity of the task being undertaken by the Equalities Review as ‘trying to nail jelly to the wall’. In view of the patchy availability of data and the crosscutting nature of inequalities, this assessment is probably realistic! Nevertheless, this report marks a significant step in moving forward the equality and diversity agenda and much can be harnessed to the benefit of schools. Proactive measures for schools include:

  • keeping up-to-date with new equality and diversity legislation and the progress of the CEHR
  • collating recent data on school performance amongst vulnerable groups of young people
  • being aware of interactions between different ‘strands’ of inequality including ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status
  • accessing/developing resources for young people identified as being at a disadvantage.