14:59, October 13 93 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-13 14:59:03
The Guardian view on school segregation: the origins of inequality

On the face of it, Friday’s UK court of appeal ruling that segregation by sex in co-ed schools is a breach of the Equality Act is important for two reasons: it expands the understanding of discrimination and it strikes back against the creeping normalisation of segregation on faith grounds in non-religious circumstances. Those are big victories, and they are important. But on the biggest argument, that any such discrimination always hurts girls more than boys, the court ruled two-to-one against. The dissenting judgment of Lady Justice Gloster is both a powerful advertisement for the immense importance of diversity in the courts, and essential reading for anyone interested in the complex relationship between faith and state.

Al-Hijrah school is a voluntary aided co-educational Islamic faith school in Birmingham that teaches children aged four to 16. From the age of nine, boys and girls are separated on arrival and spend the whole day apart. Last year, Ofsted put the school in special measures because of concerns about school management, but it also found that the segregation was discriminatory even though both sexes had almost identical access to the full curriculum. The high court supported the school’s right to segregate its pupils. But on Friday the court of appeal overturned the high court and backed Ofsted’s argument that every boy and girl was discriminated against on the grounds that they did not have the chance to mix with the opposite sex. As a result, their social development and the extent to which they were prepared for interaction with the opposite sex when they left school was hampered. They were not properly educated. It was not a question of separate but equal treatment, but of discrimination against every individual. So far, so groundbreaking.

But this was a case that hinged on perception, and where the three-judge court disagreed – on the disproportionate discrimination suffered by the girls – it was as segregated as the playground at the al-Hijrah school. The two male judges accepted the school’s contention that since the girls had equal access to the curriculum, there could be no practical discrimination. While they acknowledged that out in the real world, women are generally less powerful than men, they rejected the argument that segregation at school served to build a sense of inferiority that was simply reinforced as soon as they went on to sixth-form college.

It was left to the single female judge, Lady Justice Gloster, to point out some of the indicators of their inferiority to which the girls were exposed every day at school. They had to wait, for example, until after the boys’ break before they were allowed to go out; Ofsted found on more than one inspection that the school library displayed books underlining in the most extreme language the inferior role of women in the home; and the inspectors also reported that there was a patent sense of stereotypical gendered roles and subordination present in the girls’ schoolwork. Segregation was not being turned to the girls’ advantage. It was not preparing them for an independent, empowered life.

In a week when each day revelations of film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s allegedly predatory private life emerged along with the clamour for fundamental change to stop it ever happening again, the appeal court majority ruling, written admittedly weeks ago, appears insensitive to the kind of conditioning that plays such a significant part in creating the circumstances in which a powerful man can operate with impunity. Progress towards gender equality proceeds at a crawl. Racial diversity advances even more slowly. Yet in those early years, any school ought to enable its female students to make free, informed choices about how to take part in British society. Such decisions may well be rooted in her cultural, religious or community experience – but they should not be determined by it. Segregating young pupils on the basis of their sex in a co-education school does just that.