Preventing appearance-based discrimination in schools

Education professionals have a key role to play in supporting young people with a visible difference and creating an inclusive environment for all pupils.

More than a million people in the UK have a visible difference – a mark, scar or condition that affects their appearance – including 86,000 children and young people of school age.

Many young people experience physical-appearance discrimination in schools. Sometimes this takes the form of bullying but often it is down to ignorance and unconscious bias.

As teachers and education professionals, you have a key role to play in both supporting children and young people with a visible difference and creating an inclusive learning environment for all pupils.

The tips below provide advice on a wide range of issues including:

  • Talking to pupils about visible difference.
  • Recognising and challenging unconscious bias.
  • Supporting pupils who look different.
  • Addressing appearance-related bullying.

We have lots of activities and resources to help you talk about visible difference in your classroom.

Only 5% of people with a visible difference said their school succeed in stopping them being bullied.

Start by watching this video, in which young people with visible differences talk about their experiences of bullying and mistreatment, and how they have coped with it:

Guidance for education professionals

These tips will help you make your school a great place to learn, where youngsters feel safe and motivated, where everyone is included and where young people don’t face discrimination based on their physical appearance.

He developed a stutter, he developed a twitch, he was losing his hair. It was all down to anxiety. He was being sick in the morning.

Mum of an 11-year-old boy with a visible difference

It’s important for you as a teacher to be aware of your own unconscious bias and reflect on your own feelings and ideas about appearance and visible difference:

  • Unconscious attitudes towards people who look different can lead to teachers having significantly lower expectations of pupils with a visible difference or thinking that appearance-related bullying is inevitable.
  • Ensure you have the same high expectations for all pupils.

This video explains how unconscious biases relating to people with visible differences are formed and how they can influence your teaching:

Challenge negative stereotypes of visible difference:

  • Negative stereotypes of visible difference reinforce the myths that people who look different can’t have a happy life, require surgery to “fix” their appearance or are bad and scary people.

Use matter-of-fact, non-judgemental language:

  • When talking about visible difference, it is important to use non-judgemental, matter-of-fact language. For example, “Amina has a cleft lip”, “James has a large birthmark on his face” and, “Fiona is a burns survivor”.
  • If you’d like to know more about the importance of language, scroll down to the “language matters” section of this page.

It’s not nice when you’re walking down the street and you feel shy to show your face.

Boy with a visible difference

Make good use of images:

  • People often associate visible difference with tragedy or see it as a sign of someone’s bad character.
  • It is important to challenge these ideas by ensuring that images you use in the classroom reflect a wide range of appearances and show people with a visible difference in a positive way.
  • Replace negative stereotypes with positive images and stories about people with a visible difference.

Have a look at this video, I Am Not Your Villain, in which people, including children and young people, with a visible difference explain the damaging effect of using scars, burns or marks as a shorthand for villainy in the film industry:

Understand your responsibilities under the public sector equality duty (PSED):

Our public sector equality duty guide for schools will help to ensure that your school is fulfilling its responsibilities specified by the PSED.

Never patronise:

  • Equality means equal expectations and equal respect, no compensatory special treatment because you feel sorry for someone that you teach.

74% of people who have a visible difference said that their school didn’t do anything to stop them being bullied.

The most obvious example of physical-appearance discrimination in schools takes the form of bullying. You should address appearance-related bullying as soon as you become aware of it:

  • Your school or organisation will have a policy for combating bullying. Make sure that appearance-related bullying is included in your policy.
  • The important thing is to stop the bullying. You don’t have to make children and young people be friends – and anyway, you can’t! But school staff should intervene every time someone in your school is harassed or bullied.
  • Read more about anti-bullying and visible difference on our anti-bullying page.

Never ask children and young people to get themselves into groups for a lesson or games activity:

  • This can lead to patterns of exclusion developing, so you should always plan and organise the groups or teams yourself.
  • Working in groups provides important opportunities for children and young people to get to know each other better and to learn to communicate and cooperate with each other.

Equip children and young people with personal and social tools for the times when they feel vulnerable about the way they look:

43% of people with a visible difference said it had an impact on their ambition or aspiration in relation to college or university. More than a fifth (22.3%) of respondents said that their appearance affected their decision on moving into further or higher education.

Talk to your pupils and students about visible difference to raise awareness and increase their knowledge and understanding.

Language matters

People with conditions, injuries and illnesses that affect the way they look often face discrimination at school, work and in other areas of their lives.

My nickname at school was “scarface”. I couldn’t stop it so I tried to “own” it, I guess. I seemed to think it worked at the time but I can’t deny it hasn’t affected me throughout my life.

Person with a visible difference

Media representations significantly influence the way people who look different are perceived and the way their lives are imagined. Our language frames the way we think about things. Journalists, advertisers, politicians, scriptwriters and many others all use words selectively to promote their particular message or to encourage people to see things in a particular way.

The vocabulary we use can either hinder or help a person with a visible difference.

  • Joshua was horribly disfigured in a motorbike accident.
  • Joshua was scarred in a motorbike accident.

The second version is factual and non-judgemental – and therefore preferable. Imagine using “horrible” to describe someone’s skin colour or race. And yet people sometimes use words like “horrific” and “grotesque” when describing someone’s visible appearance.

By using words with care, you can help reduce negative beliefs about visible difference and enable people who look different to feel a part of society rather than apart from it.

Every day when I walk out my door people stare at me and whisper. I get constantly asked on the internet what’s wrong with my face. But I have learnt that this says more about the other person than it says about me.

Nikki Lilly

What should I say?

Some people prefer words like “visible difference” or “unusual appearance” when describing the way they look. Instead of using a general term, others prefer to use the name of their condition e.g. vitiligo, cleft, Goldenhar, Moebius, burn scars, eczema.

School staff should work with the child and their parents and discuss with them how they would like their condition or appearance described. It may never come up in the classroom but it’s better to know what to say rather than worrying that you’ve used the wrong term. View our resources designed to help you support pupils with a visible difference.

Here are two videos that you may find helpful. The first contains perspectives from young people with visible differences on what you can do to support them:

The second video offers a perspective from parents of young people with visible differences. In the video, parents talk about the challenges their children have faced at school because of the way other students have reacted to their appearance, and how they have addressed these difficulties:

Legal use of the word “disfigurement”

How children and young people want their appearance described is up to them. However, the term “disfigurement” is used in British law as a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010. This act protects people with a “severe disfigurement” from discrimination and disadvantage, whether intentional or inadvertent, in school, at work, and in many other social contexts.

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Anti-bullying policy guidelines

This guide is designed to help teachers understand the kind of bullying students with visible difference might face and how to tackle it.