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It's different for girls

Anat Arkin reports on two judgments with implications for admissions policies

LOCAL authorities may have to provide more single-sex school places after a devout Muslim, who objected to his daughter mixing with boys, made the first successful challenge to school admissions policies under human rights law.

Newham council had offered the 11-year-old a place at a mixed comprehensive because the girls' school that her father, known as Mr K, preferred was oversubscribed. An admissions appeal panel backed the east London authority's decision.

But as The TES reported last week, a High Court judge overturned the panel's ruling on the grounds that, under the 1998 Human Rights Act, admissions policies must take account of parents' beliefs - including religious objections to co-educational schooling.

The Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, gives a right to education and to respect for religious and philosophical convictions. Mr Justice Collins did not say how much weight authorities should give to parents' religious convictions. But his judgment could mean that many authorities will need to re-introduce largely single-sex schooling.

"If this holds for Muslim parents, it will also hold for Sikh, Hindu, Orthodox Jewish or, in fact, any parent who has a philosophical objection to co-educational schooling," says Marie Parker-Jenkins, professor of research in education at Derby University and an expert in education law.

However, she points out that Britain signed up to the European convention with the proviso that compliance with the protocol covering education and religious convictions would be "subject to the avoidance of unnecessary public expenditure".

So if the Newham case goes to appeal, the council may argue that it cannot offer Mr K's daughter single-sex schooling without incurring unnecessary expense. The Court of Appeal will then have to interpret the word "unnecessary".

The Newham judgment raises difficult questions, says Margaret Tulloch of the Campaign for State Education. How, for example, will it affect authorities without any single-sex schools? And how will they satisfy parents who want a Christian education for their children if there are no church schools in their neighbourhood?

"This is a thorny issue that the Government will have to consider as it draws up the new school admissions code of practice," says Mrs Tulloch. "It seems at first sight that this could make things difficult for admissions authorities because you can't have an infinite number of single-sex schools."

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