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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

Learning and your rights

It is unlawful for schools and other education providers to discriminate against disabled pupils, students and adult learners. Find out how the Equality Act 2010 has increased protection for disabled learners against unfair treatment.

The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act has simplified and strengthened the discrimination laws which protect people from unfair treatment.

It is unlawful for a school or other education provider to treat a disabled student unfavourably. Such treatment could amount to:

  • direct discrimination
  • indirect discrimination
  • discrimination arising from a disability
  • harassment

Direct discrimination

An education provider must not treat a disabled student less favourably simply because of their disability. For instance, they can’t refuse admission to disabled applicants because they are disabled.

Indirect discrimination

An education provider must not do something for all students which would have a negative effect on disabled students, unless they have a genuine reason. For example, only providing course application forms in one format, which may not be accessible for disabled people.

Discrimination arising from a disability

An education provider must not discriminate against a student because of something that is a consequence of their disability.

For example, they can’t stop a disabled pupil going outside at break time because it takes them too long to get there.


Education providers must not harass students because of their disability. For example, a teacher must not shout at a disabled pupil if the disability means that they are unable to concentrate.

Making adjustments

Education providers must also make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that disabled students aren’t discriminated against. Making reasonable adjustments could include:

  • changes to practices or procedures
  • changes to physical features
  • changes to how learners are assessed
  • providing extra support and aids (such as specialist teachers or equipment)

The obligation for schools to provide extra support such as specialist teachers or equipment will be introduced at a later date.

Schools are not expected to change their premises. They are expected to make long-term plans for improving access to their buildings through their planning duties.

Public authority equality duties

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) introduced a public authority equality duty. The duty is aimed at encouraging public authorities to consider the needs of disabled people as part of their everyday activities. Under this duty education providers have to take steps to promote disability equality, eliminate discrimination and publish a Disability Equality Scheme. The DDA has now been replaced by the Equality Act 2010, you can read more about this from the links below.

As part of the Equality Act, a new combined public authority duty will be introduced from April 2011, covering all protected characteristics. Protected characteristics include:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnerships
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion and belief
  • sex and sexual orientation

In the meantime, your education provider should continue to follow the existing duties under the DDA.

Special Educational Needs (SEN) legislation

The Education Act 1996 provided for the publication of a Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice. This code of practice gives education providers practical guidance on how to identify and assess children with special educational needs. All publicly-funded pre-schools and nurseries, state schools and local authorities (LAs) must take account of this code. Health and social services must also take account of the code when helping LAs.

To accompany the code of practice, the Department for Education and Skills produced a booklet, 'Special educational needs - a guide for parents and carers'. You can download a copy from the Teachernet website.

Special Educational Needs: pre-school and school

Ask to see a school's policy on SEN so you know what support they can offer.

You can request a 'statutory assessment' of your child's needs if their needs are not met by the informal arrangements put in place by:

  • your child's early education provider or school
  • you
  • a professional who has been involved in your child's education

Special Educational Needs: further education

The Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) and LEAs are responsible for meeting the cost of full-time education for people up to the age of 19. If the YPLA decides that your needs can only be met by going to a specialist residential college, it has a duty to fund your place.

If you have a statement of SEN, your LEA must work with social services as part of your 'Transition Plan' when you approach leaving school.

Special Educational Needs: higher education

Going to university or college may mean that the sources of support you are used to at home will no longer be available. However, social services should provide you with the support you need. You have the right to ask your local social services department for an assessment of your daily living needs, including any personal care or help you may require.

All higher education institutions should publish a Disability Statement setting out how they provide support. You can ask to see a copy of this statement.

Help and advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a good source of advice if you feel you may have been discriminated against in education or elsewhere. The commission's helpline provides advice and information about the disability discrimination legislation to disabled people, their friends and families, employers, service providers, schools and colleges.

Telephone: 08457 622 633

Textphone: 08457 622 644

Fax: 08457 778 878

Lines are open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 9.00 am to 5.00 pm; Wednesday 8.00 am to 8.00 pm.

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