Every educator needs to have an understanding of the importance of law, and there is certainly a place for law within education. However there can be significant dangers in allowing lawyers to determine educational policy.
Last week’s decision by the court of appeal is a prime example. They determined that a school offering classes to boys and girls separately was against the law. I am not a legal expert so cannot comment on whether the eminent judges interpreted the law correctly, however there is little doubt that educationally, this decision is ill advised.
In effect, it will render schools registered under one Department for Education (DfE) number that provide education to boys and girls through separate schools as illegal. Whereas should the same schools exist with their own DfE numbers, they would be operating within the law. The delivery of education within the schools need not change at all and single sex schools with their own DfE numbers will not be affected by this judgement either.
The background to this case lies in an Ofsted judgement that found Islamic Al-Hijrah school to be Inadequate. It was found overall to be a poor performing school with concerns about extreme and intolerant views, the Judges emphasised this in their comments regarding unacceptable books in the library among everything else. However, the school challenged Ofsted’s concerns regarding the provision of education to girls and boys separately, namely, operating as two schools on one site. The courts found that even if the education provided was exactly the same, they were in breach of the Equalities Act 2010.
This decision has very little to do with education and everything to do with interfering with parental choice. The DfE has every right to expect schools to offer the same opportunities to boys and girls, however the rights of parents to determine how this should be delivered should be unquestioned. There is substantive evidence to show that boys and girls study better in separate settings and indeed year-on-year the league tables evidence this fact with single sex schools being among the top performing schools in the country.
It is difficult to understand why Ofsted would pursue this case through the courts, when by their own admission it pertains to only a tiny proportion of schools and yet are seemingly willing to turn a blind eye to the hundreds of schools that are breaking the law by deciding not to teach religious education.
The appeal will potentially impact a significant number of schools in our community. Whilst it is unclear at present what the expectations of implementation will be, it would seem that any school educating boys and girls separately for a substantive part of the day could be found to be in breach of the Equalities Act.
We are currently in discussion with the DfE and Ofsted and taking legal advice as to the practical ramifications of this ruling on our schools. There is a real danger that parts of the community will view this ruling as a challenge to our community’s way of educating our children. However, the DfE clearly recognises these concerns and has reassured us that this is not intended in any way as an attack on the community’s values. They have expressed a genuine desire to work with PaJeS in order to find a suitable resolution for all our schools.