The Orthodox Jewish community was this week left to assess the impact of a Court of Appeal ruling that gender segregation in mixed schools is illegal.
The judgement on Friday, which affects some Jewish schools, comes after an Islamic mixed sex school in Birmingham – which splits boys from girls at the age of nine – was found to be discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010.
The court case was launched by the board of governors of Al-Hijrah, a voluntary-aided faith school, shortly after it was downgraded to ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted inspectors last year.
The school has students from the age of four to 16, but notes that the “complete segregation of boys and girls in the age range of nine to 16 for all lessons, breaks, school clubs and trips is one of the defining characteristics of the School”.
Judith Nemeth, head of the National Association for Jewish Orthodox Schools (NAJOS), this week acknowledged that there would be some impact on the Jewish community but urged calm.
“This may affect some of our schools,” she said. “We are liaising with the Department for Education for advice as to how to proceed. The judgement has given time for all schools to get their house in order given that Ofsted had been ‘allowing’ this previously giving the impression this was OK. So there is no panic.”
Rabbi Avroham Pinter, the principal of Yesodeh Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill, also said he had been following the court case for some time.
“For the vast majority of Jewish schools that are not co-ed, this should not have any impact,” he said. “But some will have to look at the ruling and be a bit of creativity. They will need to consider separating and look at the way they’re organised.”
He added: “I’m concerned that this is just the latest example of schools being politicised. We read last week that doctors will be asking young adults about their sexuality. One questions whether this is actually about equality or politics. There seems to be a lot of social engineering going on. It’s brings to mind Orwell and 1984, and seems to be very un-British.”
Rabbi David Meyer, director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS), the educational division of the Jewish Leadership Council, described the decision as “potentially very challenging for a number of Jewish schools”.
He added that it was “very difficult to find an educational argument that can justify the existence of some separate sex schools but render others illegal. Sadly the outcome of this case is likely to be more about limiting parental choice than raising educational standards”.
Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who campaigns for secular education, said the case “highlights how important it is to for Ofsted to monitor faith schools, so that practices that are illegal or that harm social cohesion are not allowed to exist”.
Board of Deputies vice President Sheila Gewolb said: “We have noted with concern the Appeal Court ruling that segregation of sexes in a co-educational school is unlawful, which could have implications for some Jewish schools. We have been in discussion with the Department for Education since this matter came to court and will be discussing options which we hope will ensure that there will be limited – if any – disruption to Jewish schools.”