The general equality duty
As you are no doubt aware, since 5 April 2011 schools and academies have been subject to a wider equality duty (pursuant to section 149 Equality Act 2010).
The general equality duty requires public authorities and those exercising public functions to have ‘due regard’ to three particular aims when exercising their functions:
- Eliminating unlawful discrimination or any other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010;
- Advancing equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not; and
- Fostering good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not.
This general equality duty encompasses all of the protected characteristics, save for marriage and civil partnership. There is also an exception for schools and academies in respect of age.
By way of just one example, the general equality duty might require that a school review its anti-bullying strategy to ensure that it addresses homophobic bullying, with the aim of fostering good relations, and in particular tackling prejudice against gay and lesbian people.
The specific equality duties
The Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) Regulations came into force in September 2011 and are designed to assist public authorities in meeting the general equality duty. The specific duties require public authorities and those that exercise public functions (including schools and academies) to publish information showing their compliance with the general equality duty and to set and publish equality objectives.
Schools and academies are required to publish this compliance information and their equality objectives by 6 April 2012. Each governing body or academy proprietor should decide for itself what information it publishes. This will vary greatly depending on the size of the school and the range of functions it performs. The compliance information must then be published at least every year, with the equality objectives being published at least every four years.
Information to show compliance with the equality duty
Governing bodies and academies employing 150 or more employees are required to publish information relating to persons who share a protected characteristic who are its employees, or other persons affected by its policies and practices. Governing bodies with less than 150 employees are not required to publish information relating to its employees, but must still publish information about other persons affected by its policies and practices.
The Regulations require all schools and academies to prepare and publish one or more objectives it thinks it should achieve in order to comply with the general equality duty.
Each school can decide on how many objectives to set and what they should be. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommends that schools and academies engage with staff and service users in defining appropriate objectives. The objectives should be ‘specific, relevant and measurable’ and the number of objectives should be proportionate to the size of the school and the extent to which its functions affect equality.
Both the compliance information and the objectives must be published in a way that is accessible to the public. The Home Office advises that the information should be free of charge and accessible in different formats, especially for disabled people. The information does not have to be published separately and can form part of a business plan or an annual report.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission have published a Code of Practice giving further guidance on both the general equality duty and the specific equality duties. You can view the Code of Practice here. The Home Office has also produced a guide to the Equality Duty, which is available on its website.