Who is protected from religion or belief discrimination?

All teachers and educational professionals have specific protection from discrimination at work on grounds of religion, religious belief, philosophical belief or lack of religion or belief under the Equality Act 2010. You are protected regardless of your religion or belief. Discrimination because you are perceived as having a particular religion or belief, or because you associate with someone who has a particular religion or belief, will be unlawful. You are protected whether you are permanent, fixed-term, full-time, part-time, supply or agency.

Your colleagues, managers and governors are prohibited from discriminating against you. If you are an agency worker on a day-to-day or longer term contract, your agency and the hirers for whom you are working are prohibited from discriminating against you.

There are some exceptions, however, for teachers and head teachers in faith schools.

What is religion or belief discrimination?

Treating you less favourably than another colleague in similar circumstances on grounds of religion or belief would be direct discrimination.

Applying to all staff a workplace policy or practice, that you and other teachers of your religion or belief cannot comply with because of your religion or belief, would be indirect discrimination if it puts you at a disadvantage, unless the employer could justify the impact of the policy or practice.

When am I protected from religion or belief discrimination?

You are protected from religion or belief discrimination before, during and after your employment. There should be no discrimination in recruitment including advertisements, shortlisting and interview procedures; pay, including pensions; terms and conditions of employment; access to training; opportunities for promotion; transfers; dismissals; and after your employment has ended, for example, in the provision of references.

What about faith schools?

Designated religious schools, including voluntary aided and independent faith schools and faith academies, may take into account your religious opinion, attendance at religious worship or willingness to teach religious education (RE) when making decisions relating to the appointment, pay or promotion of teachers. Such schools may also take into account any conduct which is incompatible with the religious denomination of the school when considering appointing or dismissing a teacher.

Faith schools may not use these exemptions to discriminate against teachers on any other ground than religion or belief, such as your sex, race or sexual orientation.

What sort of treatment is covered?

Religion or belief discrimination would include not offering you a post because you are an atheist, or failing to promote you on the grounds that you have previously requested time off for religious worship.

Subjecting a teacher or educational professional to verbal or physical harassment in the workplace is unlawful. The NEU has produced a separate factsheet, Religion or Belief Harassment, available on the union website at: neu.org.uk

What sort of treatment is not covered?

Treatment that is nothing to do with your religion or belief, which the employer can show is wholly and genuinely for a non-discriminatory reason, will not be unlawful. Treatment that you might feel is unfair will not necessarily be discriminatory.

Suspending you for wearing religious iconography or clothing in the classroom, that poses a health and safety risk or impedes your capacity to teach, is likely to be lawful.

Employers may use 'positive action' to encourage applications for vacancies from groups of people who are under-represented in the workforce or at a particular grade in the workforce. Employers may use ‘tie-break’ provisions to appoint an individual from an under-represented group if two candidates are as qualified as each other for a post. Contact the NEU if you need advice on an employer's use of positive action.

Employers sometimes specify that it is an occupational requirement for a post to be held by an individual with a particular equality characteristic. This option is rarely used in the education sector but contact the NEU if you think that it has been used inappropriately to your disadvantage.

What should I do if I think that I have been discriminated against?

Gather all the written evidence that you have, for example, job adverts, letters, emails and relevant screenshots. Keep a diary of all incidents of less favourable treatment including dates, times, places, the names of any witnesses and your response to the conduct or behaviour.

It is not always immediately clear whether certain treatment is on grounds of religion or belief or for some other genuine reason so it is sensible to record all the treatment you are concerned about. An employer may or may not intend to discriminate against you or may try to cover up discrimination against you. The employer should work with the union to find out the real reason for the treatment, to stop the treatment if it is discriminatory and to secure appropriate action, for example, to obtain a full written apology or to secure a pay award that you have been denied.

Ask your workplace rep or school or college office for copies of relevant workplace policies, for example, pay policies, capability procedures, redundancy policies. The NEU urges all employers to adopt policies and procedures which prohibit unlawful discrimination and which allow employers to identify and tackle any discrimination fairly and quickly.

Discuss your concerns with your workplace rep. Your colleagues may have made similar complaints and you may be advised to tackle the issue with them collectively.

You or your rep might decide to contact the union for further advice. The NEU will be able to advise what steps you should take. You may be advised to lodge a formal grievance or to lodge a collective grievance with your colleagues. This may resolve the issue. In rare cases you may be advised to take the matter to an employment tribunal. The objective in all cases will be to stop any discrimination and allow you to continue working in a professional environment free from discrimination.

What if the discrimination or harassment has made me ill?

Follow the advice in the previous answer on gathering information and seeking advice. Keep a record of how you believe discriminatory treatment or harassment has affected your health, eg your symptoms and any absences from work. You are advised to see your GP and to let your employer know in writing that the treatment at work is affecting your health. The union can help you write this letter. If you believe that the stress of discrimination or harassment at work has led to depression, an anxiety disorder or psychosis, you may be suffering from a recognised psychiatric illness. If so, you should seek immediate advice from the union – see contact details at the end of this factsheet.

What should my employer or agency do if I complain about discrimination?

Your employer or agency should investigate your complaint, stop any discrimination, take appropriate action and prevent it from happening again to you or someone else. Employers in the education sector should comply with the public sector equality duty to eliminate discrimination and advance equality.

What if the employer treats me worse after I have raised the issue?

You should contact your workplace rep if you are subjected to detrimental treatment in retaliation or as punishment for raising a complaint of discrimination. This is called 'victimisation' and is prohibited by the Equality Act.

What more can I do to protect myself and colleagues from discrimination at work?

Employers in the education sector have a statutory duty to be proactive in eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity for staff and pupils. They must assess the impact of their policies and procedures on the people affected by them and take steps to remove any barriers that come to light where it is proportionate to do so. Contact your workplace rep, branch secretary or local equality officer if you want to get involved in reviewing the equality impact of policies and procedures in your workplace.

Make sure that you receive information about NEU equality events and conferences and about the equality constituency seat elections for the national executive. If you have not told the union about your ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability status, you may miss out on important information. Update your membership details to ensure you are fully informed. The information that you provide will remain strictly confidential. The data will form the basis of anonymous statistical reports which will help identify trends in workplaces and barriers to participation in the union's structures.

You are not alone in this union

When you read through this document you may have questions about what happens in your particular school or workplace, and there may be collective issues that affect other members. In most circumstances, you should initially discuss the matter with your workplace rep, as they will know whether similar concerns have been raised by other members. If you do not have a rep at the moment, it would be a good idea to get members together to elect one. Further advice on this is available at: neu.org.uk/becoming-a-rep

Although you may sometimes feel that you are the only person affected by or concerned about a particular issue, in reality this is seldom the case. Any difficulties you may experience are likely to be linked to wider conditions at your workplace and as a member of the NEU you have the advantage of being able to act collectively with your colleagues. This should give you the confidence of knowing that you have the weight of the union behind you.

Further information

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
Guidance on transgender equality

Trades Union Congress (TUC)
Guidance on transgender equality

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)
Guidance on transgender discrimination