Landmark Ruling Over Faith School Deemed to be Unlawful Sex Discrimination
Earlier this week Court of Appeal judges ruled that segregating boys from girls in a mixed school constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. The case concerns the Islamic Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, which not only has separate classrooms for male and female pupils, but also separate corridors and other walkways. The school, which admits pupils from the age of four, and teaches them up to the age of 16, has been investigated by Ofsted in the past over its strict segregation rules. The school was previously placed into special measures by the regulatory body, but the high court decided the inspectors made an `erroneous` judgement in stating that segregated classes amounted to sexual discrimination.
The high court decided the school did not contravene the 2010 equality act - and went on to explain their judgement:
`It is common ground that the school is not the only Islamic school which operates such a policy and that a number of Jewish schools with a particular Orthodox ethos and some Christian faith schools have similar practices,`
This new judgement by the Count of Appeals goes against their previous opinion, and could have far reaching implications for a number of faith schools that separate male and female pupils.
Helen Mountfield, Ofsted`s lead barrister, said of the Al-Hijrah school that it imposed a `particular detriment to girls,` going on further to say:
`They do go into the world unprepared for life in modern Britain, where they are expected to be able to work and socialise with members of the opposite sex.`
Some people might argue that the school is not doing anything particularly different from the numerous single sex schools in the country - others see something amiss in a building that forbids boys and girls to walk down the same corridor together. Single sex schools are actually in steep decline: their number has halved in the last 20 years according to a recent census by the Independent Schools Council. A former headmaster of a well known all boys public school has said that mixed classrooms give a better `preparation for life;` and recently a number of prominent schools, including Wellington, Oundle, Marlborough, Milton Abbey, Repton, Stowe, Rugby, and Uppingham, have made the switch to mixed classrooms.
There is generally conflicting information as to whether single sex schools provide a better learning environment for children. Many claim that secondary schools with unmixed classes engender a more serious and academic atmosphere with less distractions; while others believe mixed schools provide more opportunity for learning vital social skills.
It is not uncommon for certain institutions - schools, places of worship, certain hospital wards - to practice some kind of gender segregation. Many will have been doing so for centuries, and it is only relatively recently that some of these traditions have begun to be challenged.
It was only in the 1870`s that women were first allowed to attend university, but they couldn`t actually obtain a degree until 1920. Though they might have completed the same work as their male counterparts, they weren`t permitted to graduate - Oxford University was amongst the first when in 1920 it allowed women to matriculate and be granted a degree.
This may seem like the distant past of course, but it is worth remembering that, prior to 1975, when the sex discrimination act came into force, men could be hired over women for no other reason than their gender.
In my personal view it is not right for boys and girls to be segregated in the classroom - whether this occurs in single sex schools, or through separating the pupils in the same school, through what I can only imagine is a meticulously constructed timetable, which must be followed to military precision. Children attend schools in order to become well formed and contributing members of society. Inculcating them with academic abilities is the major part of the education system; but they also go to school to acquire social skills, and mixing with the opposite sex is part of this. Children being better behaved (and thus better pupils) in single sex schools is not an argument for these schools being superior: it is an argument for more discipline in mixed schools.