The Court of Appeal has ruled that a faith school’s policy of segregating boys and girls is “unlawful” sex discrimination, backing Ofsted inspectors who criticised it.
The watchdog has won its appeal against a High Court ruling last November, which said the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham had not broken the law by separating boys and girls because such segregation was “elected for by parents”.
Ofsted was told last year that the policy of Al-Hijrah, an Islamic voluntary-aided school, did not make girls “feel inferior”.
But today’s ruling by three Court of Appeal judges found that segregating the pupils contravened the 2010 Equality Act, and caused less positive treatment for both boys and girls because of their gender.
The ruling is expected to be used as a test case for any mixed-sex schools that segregate girls and boys.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said the case had “significant implications” for Ofsted and the government.
She said the inspectorate would be considering the ruling carefully to understand how it would affect future inspections.
The school’s practice of teaching boys and girls “entirely separately”, making them “walk down separate corridors” as well as in lunchtimes and keeping them apart at all other times was “discrimination” and “wrong”, she said.
Peter Oldham QC, who was representing the school’s interim executive board, said that both boys and girls at Al-Hijrah were treated “entirely equally while segregated” and the practice had been lawful.
His words were backed by Colin Diamond, corporate director of children and young people at Birmingham city council, who said Al-Hijrah schools was being held to a “different standard” to other schools.
“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.”
Ofsted were highly critical of the school in their report last summer, arguing that separating pupils who attend the same school was not in line with the values of British society nor prepared them for modern life.
The appeal had the backing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.