Schools are being advised to review their policies and practices to make sure that they are not doing anything that discriminates against pupils on the grounds of religion or belief

The advice comes in guidance issued to support new provisions in Part 2 of the Equality Act 2006, which came into force on April 30.

Apart from some obvious exemptions for faith schools, the Act means that schools will not be allowed to admit or refuse to admit pupils on the basis of religion or belief and must treat pupils equally irrespective of their own or their parents’ religion or belief, or lack of it. The same principle applies to access to benefits, facilities or services. In addition pupils cannot be excluded from school or ‘subjected to any detriment’ on the basis of their (or their parents’) religion or belief, or lack of it.

The Act contains a number of specific exceptions to the provisions to protect the religious traditions and character of faith schools and to preserve the legal requirement for schools to provide daily acts of collective worship that are broadly Christian in character.

Religious discrimination is defined in the same way as discrimination in other areas, such as gender or race. Specifically it means treating a person less favourably than another person is or would be treated, because of their religion or belief, or the religion or belief they are perceived to have, their lack of religion or belief, or the religion or belief, or lack of it, of someone else with whom they are associated.

The guidance draws attention to the inclusion in the provisions of the lack of religion or belief, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds that they do not adhere to a particular religion – or that, in the example of an atheist, they practise no religion at all.

The advice explains how discrimination can occur directly or indirectly (see panel on right) and draws a distinction between behaviour that discriminates against another’s religious beliefs and behaviour that is motivated solely by a person’s own belief. It cites, as an example, a situation where a Sunni Muslim refusing to serve Shia Muslim customers in his shop would be guilty of discrimination. Whereas, in contrast, a Catholic printer refusing to produce leaflets advertising an abortion clinic would not be regarded as discriminating as his action was motivated by his own religious belief and not based on the religion of the person being refused the service as it was in the case of the shopkeeper.

Exceptions to the provisions will mean that faith schools will still be able to:

  • publish oversubscription criteria that give priority to children who are members of or practise their faith;
  • make available to pupils a local religious leader of the school’s faith to give advice and counselling;
  • organise trips for pupils to their local church or religious shrine without having to organise similar visits to accommodate children of other faiths within the school;
  • maintain practices specific to their religion and ethos;
  • mark or celebrate events specific to their religion and ethos.

The Act also carries a broad exemption for anything to do with the curriculum. So, for example, schools will be able to continue to teach theories of evolution in science classes without the fear that parents whose religion discounts such theories will be able to claim that their children are being discriminated against if alternatives, such as creationism, are not given equal weight.

Schools will have similar protection against claims of discrimination over the use of literature or study texts which depict a particular religion in a negative light.

Schools are also being told that they are free to use any technology at their disposal to teach all pupils, regardless of any objections on religious grounds.

All acts of collective worship provided by any school are also exempted from the prohibition of discrimination under the Act. Parents will continue to have the right to withdraw their children from such activities, but parents of other religions or beliefs cannot claim that their children are discriminated against on grounds of religion or belief simply because the school does not provide alternatives to a broadly Christian daily act of worship.

Education provisions in Part 2 of the Equality Act 2006 Under Section 49 of the Equality Act it is unlawful for any maintained, independent or special school in England and Wales and any public, grant-aided or independent school in Scotland to discriminate against a person: (a) in the terms on which it offers to admit him as a pupil, (b) by refusing to accept an application to admit him as a pupil, or (c) where he is a pupil of the establishment:     (i) in the way in which it affords him access to any benefit, facility or service,     (ii) by refusing him access to a benefit, facility or service,     (iii) by excluding him from the establishment, or

    (iv) by subjecting him to any other detriment.

Forms of discrimination
Direct discrimination on grounds of religion or belief occurs when someone is given less favourable treatment on those grounds than someone else of another religion or belief, or none, receives or would receive, where there is no relevant difference in their circumstances.

Indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief occurs when a provision, criterion or practice is applied to everyone but has the effect of putting people of a particular religion or belief, or none, at a disadvantage, and it cannot reasonably be justified on other grounds. The complainant must actually have suffered that particular disadvantage though: it cannot be merely hypothetical.

The Equality Act 2006 Part 2: Discrimination on Grounds of Religion or Belief – Guidance for Schools can be downloaded from www.teachernet.gov.uk/docbank/index.cfm?id=1130

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