An Islamic faith school has been told that it is unlawful to segregate boys and girls following a legal challenge by Ofsted.
On Friday the Court of Appeal overturned last year’s High Court ruling, which cleared the Al-Hijrah School in Birmingham of discrimination.
The Al-Hijrah School teaches pupils between the ages of four and 16, separating pupils according to their gender from year 5 onwards.
Ofsted had deemed the school “inadequate” in June 2016 following an inspection and placed the establishment in special measures. One factor in the assessment was the segregation of pupils.
Concerns were raised that the segregation limited the social development of the pupils and the effect this may have on their ability to interact with the opposite sex after they leave school.
The appeal judges supported Ofsted’s view that the segregation of pupils was contrary to the 2010 Equality Act.
But the three judges did not accept the argument that the school’s policy had disadvantaged girls more than boys.
Appeal judges said that, as a direct consequence of the school’s policy, “each pupil suffers less favourable treatment by reason of their sex”.
It is likely that the ruling will have implications on other schools in the UK that have similar segregation policies.
The court suggested that other schools should be allowed time to “put their houses in order”, given the failure of the government to identify the problem earlier.
The Court of Appeal said in its summary:
“The High Court was wrong to approach the question of whether there had been less favourable treatment by reason of sex by looking at each sex as a group.
“Each girl pupil and each boy pupil is entitled, as an individual, to freedom from direct discrimination.
“The school’s policy prevents an individual girl pupil from interacting with a boy pupil only because of her sex; if she were a boy she would be permitted to interact with a boy pupil, and vice versa.
“It was reasonable for Ofsted to take the view that this policy is detrimental to each pupil as it adversely impacts upon the quality and effectiveness of the education given to them by the school.
“As a result of the policy each pupil suffers less favourable treatment by reason of their sex.”
The ruling was welcomed by Ofsted, with chief inspector Amanda Spielman releasing the following statement:
“I am delighted that we have won this appeal. Ofsted’s job is to make sure that all schools properly prepare children for life in modern Britain.
“Educational institutions should never treat pupils less favourably because of their sex, or for any other reason.
“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.
“This case involves issues of real public interest, and has significant implications for gender equality, Ofsted, government, and the wider education sector. We will be considering the ruling carefully to understand how this will affect future inspections.”
Birmingham City Council, which took the High Court action, said it did so because it felt the school was being held to a different standard to many other schools with similar arrangements across the country.
Colin Diamond, corporate director of children and young people at the council, said:
“While we may not all agree with their practices, as is made clear in the judgement there are many other faith schools around the country that practice gender separation, none of which have been downgraded by Ofsted because of this.
“This case was always about fairness and consistency in the inspection process. We would therefore highlight comments made in this judgement about the secretary of state’s and Oftsed’s ‘failure to identify the problem’ and that in inspections over many years they have ‘de facto sanctioned and accepted a state of affairs that is unlawful’.
“We have a strong history of encouraging all schools to practice equality in all its forms and would robustly tackle any discrimination, but the issue here is about schools being inspected against unclear and inconsistent policy and guidelines.”