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

Choosing a non-church school is often not enough to avoid religious proselytising

“It’s as if the school thinks it is perfectly acceptable for them to hand out Christian propaganda to my impressionable young child.”

My sons attend a non-religious, council-funded school.

I have been consistently surprised by the RE teaching in the school and the bias given to Christianity.  There have been numerous trips to places of worship, but all of these have been Christian.  To my knowledge, my oldest son, in year 2, has learned about Diwali and Eid el Fitr.  I’m quite sure these are always prefaced with “Hindus believe…” or “Muslims believe…”  I’m not sure it is always taught the same way with the Christian stories.

My youngest son comes home and tells me the stories in a way that makes me think he gives them the same credence as the other fact or evidence based lessons.  He has come home and said he wanted to die so he could go to heaven and be with his granddad, who passed away in 2012. He has never been taught about heaven at home. As a humanist I have talked about death as a natural part of life only. Although we have fantasised about fusing our consciousnesses with computers and living forever!

There are subtle ways in which the Christian point of view is enforced by the head teacher. For example she has stood up after the obligatory nativity show at the end of the year and said it heartens her to see the nativity story and remember the real meaning and message of Christmas.

My oldest son attended the local Baptist church for his nativity story with songs. During this production a video was displayed showing an updated version of the nativity story showing children dressed as wise men travelling on scooters and posting the birth of Jesus on social media. King Herod read about it on his tablet and was very angry.  Afterwards the preacher talked about the story as if it were fact and encouraged children to come to the special Christmas Day service where they show off their toys and fly drones around the room. A few of the children later tried to influence their parents to attend as the preacher was an incredibly charismatic speaker and they really wanted to join in the fun.

Each class does assemblies in rotation. At the end of each of these the children are asked to bow their heads and pray. I have said to both my children that this is not compulsory and that sitting quietly and respectfully is perfectly acceptable. If they wish to bow their heads in quiet contemplation it is up to them. Indeed if they wish to pray it is up to them as well. My youngest became very concerned and felt he would be in trouble and sent to the head teacher if he didn’t comply. Clearly it has not been promoted as optional.

I challenged his teacher about the booklet yesterday who defended their decision to invite a church in to talk about Easter as it is part of the story of Easter and we live in a majority Christian country.  It’s as if the school thinks it is perfectly acceptable for them to hand out Christian propaganda to my impressionable young child.

I have spoken to other mums about this and they agree with my point of view and observations.  One of their children was quite upset by the idea that a man could come back to life after being killed so brutally. Clearly it wasn’t taught to him as if it is the belief of Christians and a story.


Unequal and homophobic treatment at my old church school

‘The school simply would not have responded in this way had pupils of the opposite sex been involved.’

As the elder brother of a confused and upset pupil also educated at a moderate Church of England independent school in England, I feel compelled to address an incident occurring recently that made me question the core principles of the school.

The incident involved two fourteen year old boys reportedly found by an older pupil during a ‘moment of intimacy’ in their boarding house. One of the boys (a good friend of my brother) made the rare move a year prior to ‘come out’ at their previous school. This to my knowledge had never been done at the junior school, and I can count on one hand the number of pupils in my five years at the senior school who were openly gay.

Given that I had the pleasure of sharing my schooling with more than a thousand pupils during my time, and that gay rights charity Stonewall estimates that between 5-7% of the population is gay, this gives you some indication of how difficult an environment this is for LGBT people.

The incident was reported to the house master of the two boys in question, who faced a decision. If you consider that the housemaster was also privy to the knowledge that the other boy was suffering a difficult period at home and had not come out as gay (indeed he may well not be) the decision he made becomes all the more astounding.

The boys were suspended for four days, an announcement which was made to the rest of the boarding house in which they reside, and which obviously then made its way round the school. The two children had effectively been publicly shamed for an act of intimacy and curiosity, something that I and everyone else knows, staff included, had occurred on countless occasions between pupils of the opposite sex, and had gone unpunished. To be clear, the school simply would not have responded in this way had pupils of the opposite sex been involved.

This level of prejudice from a school known to foster a culture of homophobia  may not come as a complete shock to current or former pupils. However in the context of a 21st century society, it provides a further shameful footnote to the history of private schools blighted by the days of fagging, and much worse besides.

I wish for this piece to remain anonymous to protect the identities of the boys, however I hope that one day the school will be held to task for the discrimination it has actively delivered and the lasting harm it may well have caused.