Birmingham’s Al-Hijrah school’s policy of segregating boys from girls is unlawful sex discrimination, leading judges have ruled.
Three Court of Appeal judges in London overturned the finding by a High Court judge last year that Ofsted inspectors were wrong to penalise the mixed-sex Al-Hijrah school on the basis of an “erroneous” view that segregation amounted to unlawful discrimination.
In court, the school argued that the segregation was one of its defining characteristics. They said their policy was clear to parents who wished to send their children there and to previous Ofsted inspectors, who had never raised it as a concern.
However, in a test case ruling on Friday, the Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, Lady Justice Gloster, and Lord Justice Beatson unanimously allowed a challenge against Mr Justice Jay’s decision by Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman.
As well as the Bordesley Green school, the ruling will affect other schools which have a segregation policy.
About 25 other mixed schools in England have similar rules, including other Islamic schools, several Orthodox Jewish and Christian faith schools.
Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, said, “I am delighted 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.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said, “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 National Secular Society welcomed the court ruling as “an important blow” for gender equality. Stephen Evans, its campaign director, said, “Our society is often too slow to condemn discrimination when it comes cloaked in religion, particularly Islam. But gender apartheid is an assault on women’s rights and dignity.”