Last week in Birmingham the policy of keeping boys and girls separate in one Islamic faith school was ruled as unlawful in the Court of Appeal. Though still controversial, this ruling could have huge consequences for schools throughout the rest of the UK.
The history of the case
The Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham is a mixed-sex school but from Year Five, the sexes are completely segregated during lessons, breaks, school trips and any club activities. In 2016, the school was declared inadequate by Ofsted, who said its policy of separating children was tantamount to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. In November of 2016, however, the Ofsted inspectors were overruled in the High Court.
Ofsted then took the case to the Court of Appeal, where it successfully challenged the High Court ruling.
At the appeal, Ofsted's lawyers made the argument that segregation left both boys and girls at the Al-Hijrah school "unprepared" for modern life in Britain. Although appeal judges eventually ruled against the school, they did not agree that the school's policy placed girls at more of a disadvantage – they concluded that the policy disadvantaged all of the children in the school.
The appeal judges also noted that at least twenty other faith schools in the UK, of Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths, have similar policies of segregation and would be expected to make changes to their policy to reflect the Court of Appeal ruling. However, the judges were also keen to point out that Ofsted and the government had been at fault for not identifying the problem sooner, and that as a result these other faith schools should be given some time to make the necessary changes to their policy.
The ruling will also have an effect on mixed-sex state schools that have similar policies of segregation. These schools will now risk being downgraded by Ofsted.
A controversial decision
After the ruling of the Court of Appeal had been passed down, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools and representative of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman said Al-Hijrah's policy of separation "is discrimination and it is wrong". She also claimed that such a system places both boys and girls at a disadvantage as it fails to prepare them for life in modern Britain, where there is no gender separation beyond the classroom.
At the appeal, speaking on behalf of Al-Hijrah, Peter Oldham QC dismissed the idea that segregation led to discrimination and claimed that in waiting till 2016 to launch its discrimination claims, Ofsted’s approach was "the antithesis of proper public decision-making". Meanwhile, Birmingham City Council's corporate director of children and young people, Colin Diamond felt that Al-Hijrah was being held to a different standard than other schools with similar separation policies.
The case has highlighted the division in the UK, where many parents are now calling for an end to all gender separation in schools, and some suggesting that all single-sex schools should also be phased out entirely.
If your child's school has segregation policies in place and you have any concerns in the light of this decision, give us a call at Match Solicitors today. We will be very happy to discuss your case and advise you as to your options and whether it would be something you would be wise to pursue.