15:30, July 10 53 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-10 15:30:03
Court lifts ban on naming faith school in segregation case

A state-funded Muslim faith school in Birmingham at the centre of a legal battle over its policy of gender segregation in the classroom has been named ahead of the start of a court of appeal hearing on the legality of its approach.

Judges lifted a ban on the naming of Al-Hijrah school, an Islamic faith school in inner-city Birmingham, which segregates its pupils on the basis of gender between the ages of 9 and 16.

The schools inspectorate, Ofsted, is appealing a ruling made by a high court judge in London last November, which concluded that it was wrong to penalise the school because of its “erroneous” view that segregation of boys and girls amounted to unlawful discrimination.

At the time Mr Justice Jay concluded that that segregation has the same impact on male children as it does on female children because both sides are denied the same opportunity of interaction with the opposite sex. “There is no evidence in this case that segregation particularly disadvantages women,” he added.

The faith school had argued that segregation of boys and girls from aged nine was one of its defining characteristics and no secret had been made of it. The policy is apparent both to parents who might wish to send their children to there and to regulators, the court heard. The school noted also that the segregation of its pupils had not been an issue at any of Ofsted’s previous inspections.

However, in the same ruling, Jay also rejected claims that the Ofsted inspectors had been biased and allowed the inspectorate to publish the rest of its inspection report, which placed the school into special measures but only identified it as “School X”.

At the time of the ruling, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the then chief inspector of schools, said that Ofsted would appeal, saying he was “disappointed that the court has determined that the practice of completely segregating boys and girls in this publicly funded mixed-sex school does not amount to unlawful discrimination.”

The case has attracted attention of activists, including the Southhall Black Sisters and One Law for All. The various equality and feminist groups are organising a protest outside the court at the start of the hearing, arguing that the case has become a “key battle between feminists and fundamentalists” and that “separate is not equal”.

One the campaigners Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, told the Guardian it was important to support Ofsted because the school is publicly funded. She said: “Unlike private single sex schools, this is a co-educational establishment, funded by the state, that segregates its children once they get to school at aged nine. We live a plural democracy, so it just doesn’t make sense.”

Sara Khan of Inspire said: “I have seen first hand the damaging impact of gender segregation on women and girls. As a British Muslim woman, I call on our country and our judiciary to stand on the side of equality and women’s rights, at a time when illiberals and fundamentalists seek to do away with them.”

The decision to lift the school’s anonymity came after a pre-hearing challenge from the publisher of the Daily Mail. Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls, sitting with Lady Justice Gloster and Lord Justice Beatson, said after hearing argument: “We have reached the clear decision on this application that we consider anonymity should be raised so that (the press and media) will be able to name the school.”

The judge said the court would give its full reasons later.