COURT OF APPEAL has ruled that the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham was guilty of sex discrimination when it exercised a policy of segregating boy and girl pupils. The Court ruled that the policy left girls “unprepared for life in modern Britain”, but it did not accept the argument that more girls than boys were put at a disadvantage by the policy.
The Court case arises out of an Ofsted inspection in 2016, when Ofsted judged the school as inadequate and put it in “special measures”. The Ofsted Report mentioned the segregation school’s segregation policy, claiming it was unlawful as it constituted sex discrimination and breached the 2010 Equality Act.
The School challenged Ofsted’s view in the courts, and the High Court ruled that Ofsted was wrong to class the policy as unlawful discrimination. It is this High Court ruling which the Appeal Court has now overturned – despite the school’s lawyers arguing that segregation was not the same as discrimination and that girls and boys, although separated, were not treated differently.
The Al-Hijrah School in the Bordesley Green part of Birmingham is maintained by the City Council. Both girls and boys attend, but from Year Five onwards they are separated. They are not taught together and they do not meet up in break times, and nor are there any mixed extra curricular activities.
It is estimated that there may be up to a dozen faith-based schools which have similar segregation policies. The Appeal Court judges expressed surprise that Ofsted had not raised intra-school segregation as an issue before and went on to suggest that Ofsted should put these schools on notice to change, but give them time to do so before taking steps against them
Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, welcomed the Court of Appeal ruling. She said, “The school is teaching boys and girls entirely separately, making them walk down separate corridors, and keeping them apart at all times. This is discrimination and is wrong. It places these boys and girls at a disadvantage for life beyond the classroom and the workplace, and fails to prepare them for life in modern Britain.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, also welcomed the Appeal Court ruling, saying, “Regardless of their gender, every child has the right to an effective education – and one which lets them be themselves and mix with whoever they choose. For this reason, we welcome today’s confirmation by the Court of Appeal that it is unlawful for a mixed school to segregate girls and boys completely. Socialisation is a core part of a good quality education, just as much as formal learning, and without it we’re harming children’s life chances right from the start.”
The Government is expected to consider the ruling before announcing what it will do to ensure schools comply with the law. It is not as simple as just telling all schools not to have segregation policies. The Government will want to see whether the Al-Hijrah School appeals to the Supreme Court before it presses schools to change.
As the Appeal Court judgement rests on the argument that segregation within a single mixed school is unlawful in itself, irrespective of whether it brings disadvantage, the question is raised of whether single sex schools are lawful. It would be odd to have a situation in which school premises could be physically divided and be occupied by two single sex schools, but could not be divided in order for one mixed school to operate with segregated pupils. If, as Ms Hilsenrath states, girls have a right to “socialisation” at school in order to prepare for modern life and cannot obtain this in a single sex environment created by segregation, how is this achieved in a single sex school?