Discrimination is a human rights violation which can have a damaging effect on all learners, especially those who are targeted.

Schools can tackle discrimination by promoting democracy, respect for human rights and citizenship.

To ensure that all students’ needs are met equally, schools need to prioritise language and cultural competences, multiperspectivity in history and gender equality. In this way, students can acquire competences for democratic culture, to fulfil their potential in school as well as in society.

Facts & figures

Students with disabilities in Europe have higher early-school leaving-rates than their same-age peers.[1]

Black Caribbean students are three times more likely to be excluded from English schools than white pupils. [2]

A survey of nine EU countries showed that 33% of Roma students were in schools where most pupils were Roma, with 13% in Roma-only schools.[3]

What is discrimination?

Discrimination is treating a person badly or unfairly on account of a personal characteristic, such as national, ethnic or social origin, gender, language, religion, disability or sexual orientation.

There are two basic forms of discrimination:

  • Direct discrimination – treating someone less favourably than you treat or would treat another person in the same situation, e.g., a school refusing to admit a student because they are Roma,
  • Indirect discrimination – applying a provision, criterion or practice in the same way for all of a group which has the effect of unfairly disadvantaging people in the group who share a particular characteristic, e.g., a school uniform policy banning headgears for girls and boys may unfairly disadvantage Muslim girls and Jewish boys.

Discrimination can occur in almost any aspect of school life, from the attitudes and expectations of teachers to school rules and codes of conduct, selection and grouping practices, curricula, teaching methods and materials, changing facilities, career guidance, canteen food and the physical school environment.

Whatever form it takes – whether it be parallel school systems for different ethnic groups, concentrations of minority or disadvantaged children in the same school, or differential access to educational provision, it means a lower quality of educational experience for the students being discriminated against.

Why is tackling discrimination important at school?

Discrimination is a human rights violation. Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights contains a prohibition on discrimination with respect to any of the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Convention. Article 2 of Protocol No.1 requires the state to ensure that all individuals have access to its formal educational provision.

“No person shall be denied the right to education.”[4]
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”[5]

Tackling discrimination is not simply a duty laid on schools by the European Convention of Human Rights, it is also important for student well-being and educational success. Children and young people who are treated unfairly or discriminated against are more likely to have:

  • negative attitudes to school
  • lower levels of motivation and academic achievement
  • a higher risk of dropping out of formal education
  • experience of bullying
  • mental health problems.

Feeling different or ‘less’ than others can be an isolating experience. Over time it undermines an individual’s capacity for participation in society, e.g., their sense of self-efficacy, openness to other cultures and beliefs, tolerance of ambiguity and flexibility and adaptability - all of which lie at the heart of the Council of Europe Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture.

Lack of opportunity due to discrimination in school also damages society. It intensifies social divisions, fuels xenophobia and intolerance and undermines social cohesion.

“States should adopt a combination of strong anti-discrimination measures and policies that promote more inclusive education systems where all children learn together. This is not a utopian project, but an achievable goal that can ensure more equal treatment of all children and, in the long term, improve social cohesion”[6]

What are the challenges?

One of the challenges facing the tackling of discrimination in schools is a lack of data. European-wide statistics specifically focused on discrimination in schools are scarce. Children with disabilities, for example, do not always appear in national statistics and may be ‘invisible’ to decision-makers, service providers and the public. Such children are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, however, and are often segregated in terms of educational provision.

These are not the only ‘invisible’ minorities in schools. For example, LGBTI students often feel they have to hide their sexual orientation at school to avoid victimisation.

Another key challenge is the existence of negative stereotypes about minority groups among teachers, parents, students and other school stakeholders. Such stereotypes are often deeply embedded in everyday school life and practice, so much so that they are taken as ‘normal’, e.g., stories and images in textbooks that reflect a stereotyped portrayal of the roles of women and men, girls and boys. Stereotypes help to fuel prejudiced and aggressive behaviour between students, lower expectations from teachers and negative attitudes from parents, e.g., refusing to allow their children to be taught alongside refugee or migrant children.

Stereotyping is difficult to root out in schools because its origins lie in wider society. This is exacerbated by the current preponderance of hate speech, fake news and conspiracy theories in digital media, especially social media.

The situation is compounded when minority groups are under-represented on school staff. Students lack role - models and teachers do not have the access to information about or insights into other cultures and ways of life that come with belonging to a more diverse profession. They lack the intercultural competences with which to create inclusive and quality learning environments, e.g., openness to cultural otherness, tolerance of ambiguity, plurilingual skills and knowledge and critical understanding of alternative cultures, religions and histories.

Tackling discrimination is more challenging when there is a lack of dialogue between schools and parents. Often this is on account of language difficulties, but it is also a problem where students’ parents work abroad leaving their children in the charge of elderly relatives or others.

How can schools get active?

Ensuring all learners of any age are provided with meaningful, high-quality educational opportunities alongside their peers requires a whole-school approach.

It begins by schools understanding who might be at risk of discrimination, what they can do to minimise discrimination and how they can support students at risk of discrimination. A good place to start is with an assessment of the current situation, identifying the strengths that exist in the school, but also needs and priorities. Consulting with school stakeholders is essential, especially students and, where possible, parents – e.g., using surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. Given the sensitivities involved there is argument for collecting information on individuals’ experiences of discrimination anonymously.

Based on an assessment of the current situation it is possible to identify immediate priorities for policy development. Priorities will vary with the school, but might include, for example:

  • language development
  • gender equality
  • accessibility of the physical environment
  • intercultural competences.

The setting of initial priorities should go hand in hand with professional development for senior leadership teams as well as teaching staff. An element of personal as well as professional reflection is essential to the tackling of discrimination in school. In particular, it is important for school staff to be able to consider their own beliefs and values with regard to discrimination, including their own unconscious biases and prejudices.

Schools can then turn to the longer-term aspiration of creating a culture of non-discrimination. Central to this process is the challenging of negative stereotyping, both in classrooms and around the school. This can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • challenging stereotypes when they are heard
  • discussing stereotypes with students
  • identifying stereotypes in the curriculum
  • highlighting stereotypical images and roles in textbooks
  • allocating posts of responsibility equitably
  • choosing different ways of dividing up students
  • providing a range of role-models
  • setting up mechanisms for monitoring incidents of discrimination.

Challenging stereotypes goes alongside the promotion of inclusion and an appreciation of the benefits of diversity in school life. This can take different forms, including:

  • using inclusive language
  • including human rights, democratic citizenship and intercultural education in the curriculum
  • encouraging the discussion of controversial issues
  • promoting student voice
  • involving students in peer education and peer mediation activities
  • welcoming parents and involving them in school decision-making
  • forming partnerships with different organisations and groups in the community.


[1] Education section of the The European Disability Forum

[2] Article: UK: Racial discrimination is a reality in schools and classrooms. Education International

[3] EU Fundamental Rights Agency, “Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EU-MIDIS II) Roma – Selected findings” (2017).

[4] ECHR, Article 2, Protocol No.1

[5] ECHR, Article 14

[6] Position paper: Fighting school segregation in Europe through inclusive education by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Resources on Tackling discrimination


Official texts

Policy documents



Back Improving well-being at school

Students’ well-being and their success in and outside school depend on their ability to use their competences for democratic culture.

Since well-being has many facets, improving students’ well-being in schools requires a whole-school approach, involving both teachers and parents.

Schools should provide lessons focused on the responsible use of the Internet, the need to adopt a healthy lifestyle and how to prevent or cope with health problems, in collaboration with those involved, including health and social services, local authorities and civil society organisations.

Facts & figures

About 60% of school students report getting very tense when they study.[1]

Just over 60% of girls and 40% boys say they feel very anxious about doing tests at school, even when they are well prepared.[2]

Over 70% of parents say they would choose to send their children to a school with below-average exam results if students were happy there.[3]

What is well-being?

Well-being is the experience of health and happiness. It includes mental and physical health, physical and emotional safety, and a feeling of belonging, sense of purpose, achievement and success.

Well-being is a broad concept and covers a range of psychological and physical abilities. Five major types of well-being are said to be:

  • Emotional well-being – the ability to be resilient, manage one’s emotions and generate emotions that lead to good feelings
  • Physical well-being – the ability to improve the functioning of one’s body through healthy eating and good exercise habits
  • Social well-being – the ability to communicate, develop meaningful relationships with others and create one’s own emotional support network
  • Workplace well-being – the ability to pursue one’s own interests, beliefs and values in order to gain meaning and happiness in life and professional enrichment
  • Societal well-being – the ability to participate in an active community or culture.

Overall well-being depends on all these types of functioning to an extent.[4]

“Having meaning and purpose is integral to people’s sense of well-being. Well-being involves far more than happiness, and accomplishments go far beyond test success.”[5]

Why is well-being important at school?

Well-being is important at school because schools have an essential role to play in supporting students to make healthy lifestyle choices and understand the effects of their choices on their health and well-being. Childhood and adolescence is a critical period in the development of long-term attitudes towards personal well-being and lifestyle choices. The social and emotional skills, knowledge and behaviours that young people learn in the classroom help them build resilience and set the pattern for how they will manage their physical and mental health throughout their lives.

Schools are able to provide students with reliable information and deepen their understanding of the choices they face. They are also able to provide students with the intellectual skills required to reflect critically on these choices and on the influences that society brings to bear on them, including through peer pressure, advertising, social media and family and cultural values.

There is a direct link between well-being and academic achievement and vice versa, i.e. well-being is a crucial prerequisite for achievement and achievement is essential for well-being. Physical activity is associated with improved learning and the ability to concentrate. Strong, supportive relationships provide students with the emotional resources to step out of their intellectual ‘comfort zone’ and explore new ideas and ways of thinking, which is fundamental to educational achievement.

Well-being is also important for developing important democratic competences. Positive emotions are associated with the development of flexibility and adaptability, openness to other cultures and beliefs, self-efficacy and tolerance of ambiguity, all of which lie at the heart of the Council of Europe Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture.

What are the challenges?

One of the challenges of trying to promote young people’s well-being in school is the multi-faceted nature of well-being. There are a number of different types of well-being, all of which need to be promoted to some extent to create an overall sense of well-being in a person. So, it is not possible to improve students’ well-being at school through single interventions or activities. Rather it requires the development of a ‘culture’ of well-being throughout the whole school and the active involvement of the whole staff, teaching and non-teaching, which can be difficult to achieve.

The promotion of well-being may sometimes appear to conflict with other school priorities, such as academic standards. Unreasonably high expectations, a regime of constant testing or an over-emphasis on the importance of academic performance may actually undermine student well-being.

In many cases schools do not have the freedom to make the changes to school life which might most benefit student well-being. They may have little control, for example, over formal examinations and tests, the content of curricula, the length of the school day or the physical school environment.

Nor have schools control over the many out-of-school influences on student well-being. What happens in the home and the family, local communities or social media can have as much, if not more, influence on student well-being as anything in school.

Finally, developing a sense of well-being in students is made all the more difficult when school staff themselves do not have a positive sense of well-being. Well-being at work is strongly related to stress. Stress at work is related to workload, quality of professional relationships, level of autonomy, clarity about one’s role, availability of support and the opportunity to be involved in changes which affect one’s professional life. High levels of stress can lead to demotivation, lack of job satisfaction and poor physical and mental health, which has a knock-on effect on students’ own well-being.

How can schools get active?

Addressing student well-being at school begins with helping students feel they are each known and valued as an individual in her or his own right, and that school life has a meaning and purpose for them. This can be achieved in a variety of small ways, the cumulative effect of which can have a very powerful influence on students’ sense of well-being. These include:

  • providing opportunities for all members of the school community to participate in meaningful decision-making in school, e.g. through consultations, opinion surveys, referenda, electing class representatives, student parliaments, focus groups, in-class feedback on learning activities, and an element of student choice in relation to topics taught and teaching methods used;
  • developing a welcoming environment where everyone at school can feel supported and safe through access to meaningful activities, e.g. clubs, societies, interest groups and associations dealing with issues of concern to young people, including health;
  • taking steps to reduce the anxiety students feel about examinations and testing through the introduction of less stressful forms of assessment, e.g. formative assessment, peer assessment and involving students in the identification of their own assessment needs;
  • using teaching methods that contribute to a positive classroom climate and well-being, e.g. cooperative learning, student-centred methods, self-organised time, outdoor activities;
  • finding curriculum opportunities to talk about well-being issues with students, e.g. healthy eating, exercise, substance abuse, positive relationships;
  • integrating democratic citizenship and education for intercultural understanding into different school subjects and extra-curricular activities, e.g. openness to other cultures in Religious Education, knowledge and critical understanding of human rights in Social Science, empathy in Literature;
  • introducing student-led forms of conflict management and approaches to bullying and harassment, e.g. peer mediation, restorative justice;
  • improving the physical environment of the school to make it more student-friendly, e.g. new furniture and fittings, carpeted areas, appropriate colour schemes, safe toilet areas, recreational areas;
  • encouraging healthier eating by providing healthy options in the school canteen, e.g. avoiding high amounts of sugar, saturated fats and salt;
  • working with parents to enhance students’ achievement and sense of purpose in school, e.g. on healthy food, safe internet use and home-school communications.

Individual initiatives like these can be brought together at the whole-school level through a policy development process which ‘mainstreams’ well-being as a school issue. This means giving attention to the potential effects of new policies on individual well-being - of students, teachers and others. Addressing student well-being at school always goes hand in hand with action to protect the health and well-being of teachers and other staff at school.


[1] OECD (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III), p.40. Students’ Well-Being. Paris, France: OECD Publishing.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cowburn & Blow, ‘Wise up - Prioritising wellbeing in schools’

[4] Psychology Today, January 2019.

[5] Hargreaves & Shirley (2018), ‘Well-being and Success. Opposites that need to attract’.

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