We shouldn’t need courts to tell us to give boys and girls the same chances

Last week’s Court of Appeal decision in the Al-Hijrah case found for Ofsted that segregated education is discriminatory for both boys and girls due to their lack of opportunity to develop confident relationships with the opposite gender. The judgement seems bizarre given that the right to have single gender schools is enshrined in UK law.

David Meyer makes an important observation: “The DfE has every right to expect schools to offer the same opportunities to boys and girls”, but this is not happening consistently in Jewish schools. Several schools offer pupils have different Jewish studies curricula depending on their gender. Further within some Orthodox communities’ the single gender schools systematically discriminate; denying boys of a secular education whilst denying girls of a high level Jewish education. Children have different opportunities and educational outcomes depending on their gender.

Ofsted contended that whilst the curriculum in the Al-Hijirah School was identical for boys and girls, the segregation practically affected the girls more as “in general in today’s society women have been and remain “the group with minority power in society” in terms of the distribution of wealth and influence, an educational system which preserves segregation between the sexes ….women are disproportionately excluded from networks of power and influence.” Perhaps due to the identical curriculum for all at the Al-Hijirah school this argument was rejected by the two male Judges (but accepted by the female Judge) however it is apparent that this is the situation in parts of the Jewish community.

Last week one of my friends asked her son what he was learning at school. He replied that his Gemara test was on “how you buy a woman”. My friend was appalled; how could his school’s curriculum, which reinforces the power than men have over women, be compatible with Equality Law and the British values that all UK schools must uphold. However, my friend is acutely aware that his older sister is getting an excellent secular education in a Charedi voluntary aided girl’s school, and that there is no way for her son to access a comparable secular education without her family leaving their community.

Even within the same school girls and boys are having different opportunities and education. Boys, even at primary schools, are encouraged to read from a Torah scroll. Gender stereotyping starts young; the Simchat Torah flags often coloured in primary school have pictures of boys only. In some primary school pupils are split for Jewish education with the boys learning Gemara. Sometimes the girls are taught Jewish history, but one of my friends told me her daughter was taken shopping instead. Another told me her daughter’s class did flower arranging. Whilst the secular curriculum within any given secondary school is likely to be same for all; there can be completely different Jewish education curricula for girls and boys.

Splitting segregated schools into two legal entities and continuing as before is not the right answer. Even if schools have to reregister to maintain the segregation surely our community values should dictate that Jewish schools equally invest in our girls to ensure that their Jewish education is the same as that which is offered to boys, and that boys are offered secular education comparable to the girls in their community. Perhaps Pajes can work with the DFE to ensure that this is achieved across our community.

About the Author
Eve Sacks is a co-founder of Nahamu, a think-tank lobbying on harms in the Charedi community, and a trustee of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance UK.
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