The legal status of single-sex activities
As mentioned in Chapter 2, public authorities must satisfy themselves that any approach to single-sex activities complies with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA). The legal provisions are different for education, for goods, facilities or services, and for public functions. The following paragraphs set out the main considerations, with additional supporting detail in Appendix F.
Single-sex provision in education
S22 and S26 SDA
It is unlawful for schools, colleges, universities or any other educational establishments to discriminate, either directly or indirectly, in the way they treat or admit pupils and students (subject to the exceptions listed below). This means, for example, that in mixed schools, it is unlawful to provide classes for only one sex where this would amount to less favourable treatment of the other sex.
Single-sex educational establishments are legal, however, and may discriminate in admissions.
Sex segregation is not expressly prohibited by the SDA and it is therefore potentially lawful to provide separate lessons in single-sex groups for boys and girls in a mixed school provided that there is no question of one sex receiving 'less favourable treatment'. Denying girls the same opportunities as boys, and vice versa, will usually amount to less favourable treatment. Therefore any facilities, benefits, or services provided must ordinarily be available to both sexes and provide equal opportunities. Provided that this test is met, it would be legally possible to provide segregated classes on, for example, sex education.
The provision of additional classes for one sex only in a mixed school is unlikely to be lawful, however, if the opposite sex does not have access to equivalent facilities, benefits or services. This is because it can amount to less favourable treatment, even if the motive behind the idea is well-intentioned, because it denies opportunities to the opposite sex.
This means, for example, that remedial classes in English for underperforming boys alone would not be lawful, unless the same help or opportunity is being given to any girls who are also underperforming. Participation in remedial classes to address underperformance would have to be based on objective criteria unrelated to sex, such as the previous test results of participants. If a school wished to run two sets of classes segregated by sex, however, one for underperforming boys, and one for underperforming girls, this would be permissible provided they were of like quality, in like manner and on like terms.
Where curriculum choices are being offered it is unlawful to offer different options to girls or to boys, as denying either sex the choice of all options is likely to amount to discrimination (unless covered by the positive action provisions detailed below).