Court of Appeal to hear ‘faith’ school gender segregation case

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week the Court of Appeal will rule on whether or not the segregation of boys and girls by a Muslim ‘faith’ school constitutes discrimination under equality law. The appeal is being brought by schools inspectorate Ofsted after its previous decision to place School X in special measures due to concerns over the gender segregation of pupils was overturned in November 2016 by the High Court, which ruled that there was no evidence to indicate that the girls in the school were being disadvantaged by the segregation.

Humanists UK, which frequently highlights instances of gender discrimination in UK ‘faith’ schools, has expressed concern about the precedent that might be set by turning a blind-eye to religiously-motivated gender segregation.  

School X, a Muslim school for boys and girls aged 9-16, was found by Ofsted to have a culture of prejudice in relation to both girls and LGBT people. The schools inspectorate also received an anonymous complaint from one pupil immediately following one of its inspections of the school claiming that boys and girls were ‘segregated all the time’ and that they were ‘worried about going to college and not having the social skills to be able to speak normally to the opposite gender.’  

Despite this, the school claimed that boys and girls were treated equally by the school, a claim subsequently upheld by the High Court, which noted that Ofsted had not presented any evidence that the segregation resulted in any unequal or detrimental treatment. Ofsted is now seeking to challenge the High Court’s decision on the grounds that the ‘separate but equal’ argument is flawed, and such segregation amounts to discrimination by its very nature.   

Humanists UK Education Campaigner Jay Harman commented, ‘We have been highlighting the issue of gender segregation in religious schools for some time now, and it is clear that in many instances such segregation is the product of damaging gender stereotypes. If there is any suggestion that such gender stereotyping is present in School X, as Ofsted contends it is, the Court of Appeal must overturn the High Court’s ruling. Any other decision would not only fail the girls in this particular school, but also risk empowering other religious schools to discriminate against girls in a similar way.’

Two women’s rights organisations, Southall Black Sisters and Inspire, have intervened in the case in support of Ofsted, stating that ‘the right to equality for women and girls of Muslim background in this instance is being seriously undermined’. Inspire’s Sara Khan, a British Muslim who spoke at this year’s Humanists UK Convention in Cambridge, expressed her concern that gender segregation is increasingly being accommodated in British schools and universities, warning the Court of Appeal not to ‘reinforce regressive gender stereotypes’ at a time when women’s rights are under threat. Both the Department for Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have also intervened in support of Ofsted.

The appeal will be heard in the Court of Appeal on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, with a ruling expected shortly after.

Notes  

For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman on jay@humanism.org.uk or 0207 324 3078.

See the High Court judgment here: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/x-v-ofsted.pdf      

Read more about the Southall Black Sisters campaign: http://www.southallblacksisters.org.uk/news/gender-segregation-is-gender-ap

Read the Faith Schoolers Anonymous article: ‘Faith schools and gender segregation: a worrying trend:  https://faithschoolersanonymous.uk/2017/04/faith-schools-and-gender-segregation-a-worrying-trend/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

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