Are Charedi schools extremist?

By Simon Rocker, June 12, 2014
Education Secretary Michael Gove during a visit to a Jewish school

Education Secretary Michael Gove during a visit to a Jewish school

After the government's inquiry into alleged Islamist extremism in Birmingham schools, Jewish educators will be keeping a close watch on what Ofsted does next. Will the inspection service seek to counter religious sectarianism more widely?

The Birmingham investigation, it must be said, uncovered no evidence of children being exposed to political militancy - beyond the visit of one radical preacher with hardline religious views to one school. But it did conclude that there had been a concerted campaign to impose a conservative Islamic agenda on several secular academies with a predominantly Muslim intake.

Ofsted now wants to see schools promote "British values" and to strengthen requirements for academy schools in particular to have a balanced curriculum. But these measures would apply only in the state system, not the more loosely regulated independent sector, where the most traditional Jewish schools operate.

Independent schools must still be registered with the Department for Education to teach children aged 16 and below. Gradually, secular education authorities have woken up to the fact that large numbers of Charedi boys from the age of 13, particularly in Stamford Hill, are being taught in unregistered yeshivot rather than in schools. But the DfE is wary of trying to get yeshivot to register and fears too hard a crackdown might drive some institutions underground.

One Orthodox educator familiar with the Stamford Hill set-up said this week that he was confident that the yeshivot can comply with state regulations. Independent schools are legally obliged to give pupils "experience" in maths, science and technology and other areas, but how much is not stated. They are also supposed to promote respect for other cultures, knowledge of British institutions and give English lessons, if it is not the main language of instruction.

The Orthodox educator explained that studying Talmud involves a range of secular disciplines. "We have always convinced the authorities that our curriculum is not limited, we do teach these, but in a different way.

"There will be concerns within the Orthodox Jewish community that what happened in Birmingham will be used as a springboard to broaden inspection over all faith schools."

Neither Education Secretary Michael Gove nor Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has so far suggested imposing requirements for a broad curriculum on independent religious schools. But some within the Jewish community believe they ought to.

One graduate of the yeshivah system, who subsequently broke away from strict Orthodoxy, said he had felt deprived by lack of an adequate secular education. "The state has a responsibility to ensure every child receives a minimum standard of education."

This, he contended, was "clearly not happening" in some Charedi schools. "Parents have the right to bring up children in accordance with their culture and tradition but that should not come at the cost of teaching anything else." He said that lawyers have been looking at whether it would be possible to bring a legal case against the government for failing to protect the rights of such children.

There is now a growing internet campaign calling for strictly Orthodox children across the world to have a wider secular education. Young Advocates for Fair Education (Yaffed) urges Orthodox authorities to "act responsibly" in preparing their youth for the modern world.

The "Where's Our Education?" Facebook group is launching an international petition.

Belgium is one country that has recently taken a tougher stand and ordered Charedi institutions to increase secular studies. Could Britain one day do likewise?

Last updated: 6:45pm, June 12 2014