Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says it is “completely unacceptable” for an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in London to order a driving ban for women.
Ms Morgan, who is also the minister for women and equalities, said the decision by the Belz sect in Stamford Hill, north London, was “completely unacceptable in modern Britain”.
The sect runs two schools and told its female members not to drive or face having their children barred from school, saying that driving would offend “traditional rules of modesty”.
“If schools do not actively promote the principle of respect for other people they are breaching the independent school standards,” Ms Morgan said in a statement given to the Guardian.
“Where we are made aware of such breaches we will investigate and take any necessary action to address the situation.”
The school said in a letter to Ms Morgan on Friday that it regretted the language in the letter: “We accept that the choice of words was unfortunate and if a negative impression was created by our letter then we unreservedly apologise for that.”
The Department for Education has confirmed that an investigation is under way into the matter.
The letter was originally written in Hebrew, and said that a growing number of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” had led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.
“In particular, there is great consternation and resentment amongst our students studying in the holy establishments against this practice,” it added.
“A woman driving a vehicle cannot send her children for education within the Belz institutions.
“Therefore, we are to inform you that as of the beginning of June 2015, it will not be possible for a student to study within our establishment if his/her mother drives a car.
“Any mother who must drive due to a special reason (such as a medical condition) must forward a request to a special committee and that committee will consider her request.”
Reports first surfaced of the ban in the Jewish Chronicle, after which the Board of Deputies of British Jews distanced itself from the advice. It said the “vast majority of the Jewish community has never had any problem with anyone driving”.
“This is an ultra-Orthodox sect and they have weird rules on what they think women should be doing,” a spokesman said.
“It’s not a mainstream Jewish thing. It seems to be a marginal group. Across the strictly orthodox community, women drive as much as anyone else does and no one has ever questioned it.”
Dina Brawer, the UK Ambassador of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said that the directive had no basis in Jewish teachings. “It is a perversion of Jewish law and values. There is no foundation for banning women from driving within Jewish sources, it is not reflecting the tradition.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said it was looking into allegations that the independent school standards have been breached after receiving a series of reports on Thursday.
The department was not able to say how many schools were being looked at as part of the investigation, which is at an early stage, but it is understood that both of the Belz institutions are included.