Faith schools and gender segregation: a worrying trend

“It is not just gender segregation policies that can foster a hostile environment for female pupils. Ofsted has also been vocal about widespread sexism and misogyny within ‘faith’ schools.”

Last week, an Islamic school in Birmingham was caught advertising for a male-only science teacher. The advert, since removed from their Twitter page, made it clear that the school would only be hiring for a male teacher.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has since stated that gender specific job adverts are ‘discriminatory and unlawful, unless an occupational requirement applies’.  In other words, in order to justify this discrimination, the school would have needed to prove that there was a clear link between the specific job and the need for the teacher to be male. It is hard to see how this could be applied for the role as a science teacher. The headmaster of the Salafi Independent School has claimed that the decision was made because of ‘religious observance reasons’.

The event can be seen as part of a wider issue of gender inequalities faced by both teachers and students in ‘faith’ schools across the UK. And this is not confined merely to the initial hiring of teachers. Once hired, male and female staff members may continue to face unequal treatment in a variety of ways.

“The sexist policies of these ‘faith’ schools do nothing to challenge these damaging stereotypes.”

For instance, in 2015 Ofsted reported that the Rabia School in Luton was segregating male and female members of staff during training programs, and expecting the women to watch the broadcasted sessions from a separate room. A dividing screen was even erected during an initial meeting with Ofsted.

Pupils are also frequent targets of these gender segregating policies. Ofsted has found cases of segregation in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian ‘faith’ schools. FSA has previously reported on a madrassa where girls were taught by a male teacher from an adjacent room. Books were passed through a hole in the wall to ensure there was no contact.

The Rabia School was also condemned in the same Ofsted report for practising ‘unequal treatment of girls and boys’. For example, as part of the design and technology curriculum, girls were denied access to the boy’s laboratory, and limited to ‘knitting and sewing’. These actions not only signal a lack of respect for gender equality and tolerance, but are also clearly unlawful. Ofsted has argued in a number of cases that gender segregation policies of ‘faith’ schools can be considered discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 as the policies tend to place women at an inferior level to men.

“One mother reported her daughter being told that her knee length dress was ‘disgusting’.”

It is not just gender segregation policies that can foster a hostile environment for female pupils. Ofsted has also been vocal about widespread sexism and misogyny within ‘faith’ schools. Grindon Hall Christian School and Durham Free School were both criticised by inspectors for not discouraging a sexist and homophobic culture. Accelerated Christian Education schools have been reported as teaching that women are to be subservient to their husbands, their pastor, and other male figures. And other Christian ‘faith’ schools have also been criticised for not teaching pupils a full Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, avoiding topics related to women’s reproductive rights and sexuality.

Gender segregation policies often go hand in hand with strict uniform policies for female pupils. FSA has previously reported on a Modern Orthodox Jewish School, with split campuses for boys and girls, where girls faced teachers who had an ‘obsession with dress code and skirt length’. One mother reported her daughter being told that her knee length dress was ‘disgusting’. Another Jewish school was banned from admitting new pupils in 2016 in part because it was teaching pupil that ‘women showing bare arms and legs are impure.’

Numerous other ‘faith’ schools have been accused of not promoting British values, too. A Jewish Independent school was failed by Ofsted in 2016 in part for inadequately preparing pupils for ‘life in modern Britain’ – including reporting that pupils demonstrated ‘stereotypical views on the roles of men and women, with men “going to work” and women “cooking and cleaning”.’ In January last year, a Muslim school in Tower Hamlets was found to have books in its library that promoted the inequality of men and women, and which also included details about punishments such as ‘stoning to death’.

The opportunity for children to learn and socialise together is part of their preparation for life after school. Schools are also places where children pick up a huge amount of the information on gender roles and gender stereotypes. Tragically, a recent study found that by the age of six, girls already believe that being smart, and being brilliant, are male traits. The sexist policies of these ‘faith’ schools do nothing to challenge these damaging stereotypes.

FSA team

Five reasons to be concerned about faith schools being free to teach their own version of RSE

Challenging these bigoted and discriminatory attitudes, particularly in faith schools, is one of the many crucial purposes that good RSE should serve.

This week, the Government announced that it will move to make relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in all English schools, finally answering the decades-long calls of a rich consensus of education and children’s rights charities, public health experts, parents, teachers, and children themselves.

The move is not before time. The last time any action was taken on RSE was way back in the year 2000, when the Government of the time published the existing, but now prehistoric, official Sex and Relationships Education guidance for schools. This 17-year inertia was hugely irresponsible, and for the millions of children who have gone through school ill-informed about things like healthy relationships, safe sex, consent, sexting, and various LGBT and gender issues, it has been hugely damaging too.

To be clear then, the news that RSE will become a statutory subject is absolutely to be welcomed…but cautiously so. 

Contained within the Government’s proposals is a clause requiring that any RSE provided in schools must be ‘appropriate having regard to…the religious background of the pupils’. And in the written ministerial statement announcing the move, the Department for Education states that ‘faith schools will continue to be able to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith.’

If you’re unclear about what this means, here are five reasons why you should be very, very concerned. Each takes the form of a brief quote from those who advocate teaching RSE, to use the DfE’s ominous words, ‘in accordance with the tenets of their faith’.

  1. ‘For many years, sex and relationship education has not provided a godly stance on sexuality or sexual relationships. Instead, it reflects our society’s increasingly liberal sexual norms.’

From Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, which among other things has recently campaigned to oppose the extension of hate crime offences to sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. ‘Some are wedded to the notion of “children’s reproductive-health rights” – a euphemism for the “right” of children to engage in unlawful sexual intercourse, with confidential access to contraception and abortion.’

From Normal Wells, Director of the Family Education Trust, a ‘national educational trust which researches the causes and consequences of family breakdown’ and states that sex education is ‘indoctrination’ designed to ‘tear down traditional moral standards’

  1. ‘Since the Church has always taught that sexual love should always find its true place in marriage, a homosexual partnership and a heterosexual marriage can never be equated. This is the case in English law. The Church seeks to affirm the homosexual as a person, but cannot approve of homosexual genital acts.’

From the Sex and Relationships Education policy of a state Catholic school in England, featured on Faith Schoolers Anonymous last year and subsequently changed.

  1. ‘Today there is an urgent threat to [children’s] sexual purity from immoral messages which come to them as part of formal education and through the media… If they have not had clear biblical teaching on the subjects of marriage, relationships and sex, young people will be unable to answer the evil one’s lies’

From Christian sex education provider Lovewise, which conducts presentations in schools, telling children – among other things – that ‘most rape victims regret abortion’, that ‘abortions dramatically increase the risk of depression and suicide’, and that homosexuality is ‘damaging to mind, body and spirit’.

  1. ‘[Young people] do have choices about how they live their lives and the HPV vaccine suggests they won’t be able to control themselves. We should have higher expectations for them and show them more respect, not vaccinate them en masse against STIs’

Until recently, advice that appeared on the website of anti-abortion group LIFE, which warned that the cervical cancer jab ‘gives young people another green light to be promiscuous.’

No child, regardless of their religious or non-religious background, should be subjected to discrimination, misinformation, and bigotry, least of all as part of a subject that should be equipping them to stay safe, to be respectful, and to be themselves.  But if the Government allows faith schools to opt out of providing accurate, evidence-based RSE to their pupils, that is exactly what is going to happen.  

FSA team

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We have a cap, not a quota, on religious selection

80Time and time again in the debate over the proposed scrapping of the 50 percent limit on religious selection by new state-funded religious schools, one claim has been repeated more than any other by proponents of the initiative that is simply not true.

It’s seen again in a recent piece by Harry Phibbs, for Conservative Home, when he writes:

Thus far new free schools have only been allowed to take a maximum of 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of their faith. Thus for instance if you were to open a new Roman Catholic school, and it was oversubscribed, only half of the pupils could be admitted on the basis of their faith. Once that quota is full, it is a legal requirement to turn away Roman Catholic children for simply being Roman Catholic.

That is quite absurd. So a “free” school does not have freedom over admissions.  A “faith” school is obliged to turn away children who follow its faith to make way for those who don’t. What meaning do these words have?

This is simply not true. We do not have a quota system, we have a cap system.

The difference is this: after a school has taken its 50 percent of pupils on the basis of faith, it then has to take the second 50 percent ‘without reference to faith’. But that is not the same as saying that it cannot take any more pupils of that faith. Instead, the second 50 percent affords everyone who applies equal opportunity to gain access to the school, regardless of their religion or belief.

It is almost certain that, for a Catholic school, a high proportion of applicants will be Catholics, and so a proportion of this second 50 percent will still be Catholics too. So actually the 50 percent cap is somewhat weaker than a 50 percent quota would be.

On top of that, over the years faith groups have found some clever, lawful, ways to manipulate the system and try and maximise their proportion within the faith, without breaking the 50 percent rule. One example is that if they are a minority faith school in a community with a high proportion of people of the faith, they might take their open 50 percent before their religious 50 percent, and use distance as the underlying tie-breaker. As the second 50 percent will be drawn from further afield than the first, this way they can be all but guaranteed to have a very high proportion of people of the faith amongst the open as well as the religious 50 percent.

Another way is to take all siblings under the open 50 percent, even if the older siblings already at the school gained entry under religious selection criteria themselves.

This is not to say the cap is worthless – in fact it’s been highly effective in reducing ethnic segregation particularly among Christian schools. It just illustrates that it doesn’t at all work in the hard way Mr Phibbs suggests.

 

The Government, itself, makes the same fallacy when it writes that ‘creates a barrier to setting up new schools because the Catholic Church believes their own rules mean they cannot prioritise admission of non-Catholic pupils.’ But once again, this isn’t what is happening. They are not being asked to prioritise non-Catholic families, just give them equal access.

We’ve also tried taking this up directly with Catholic lobbyists and others who have been perpetuating this confusion between cap and quota. Generally they have accepted the point, but argued that it is a subtlety parents wouldn’t understand.

So the Government blames the Catholic Church, and the Church blames the parents. But most Catholics, or indeed those of any religion or belief, don’t want religious selection at all. And on top of that, the ‘rules’ aspect of the claim is highly dubious: the CES’s parent body has said it does not support religious selection; most Catholic schools in other countries don’t religiously select; and most Catholic private schools in this country don’t either.

So why are we in this mess?

FSA team

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