Pinteresque drama at school

The Yesodey Hatorah schools, Hackney, owe their existence principally to the efforts of the late rabbis Abraham Pardes and Shmuel Pinter. The kindergarten and primary schools are private establishments. But the secondary school is "voluntary aided", meaning that it is part-funded by the state and is expected to conform to certain state-mandated norms.

YH is run on rigid charedi lines. In the 1940s, there already existed a network of orthodox schools established by the late rabbi Solomon Schonfeld. But although Schonfeld was strictly Orthodox, he was not in some quarters felt to be strictly Orthodox enough. Worse still, he had a university education. Worst of all, where Schonfeld ruled, no one else could rule. These factors appear to have motivated Rabbis Pardes and Pinter to set up a rival school system.

Today, this system is controlled by Pinter's two sons Avrohom and Chaim. Avrohom - the more media-friendly of the two - has made quite a national name for himself. Elected to Hackney borough council in 1982 in the Labour interest (the first rabbi to become a local councillor), Avrohom won, in 2005, another famous victory when the Labour government agreed to state funding for the YH senior girls' division; Tony Blair himself addressed the formal opening of this impressive £14 million campus the following year.

An Ofsted inspection in September 2006 found the campus to be "outstanding. This is not just because of your fantastic examination results", the government inspector wrote to the pupils, "but also because of the ways in which you develop and grow into exceptional young people."

Parents who complain risk religious and social ostracism

In some charedi circles, Avrohom Pinter is hero-worshipped. But in others he is reviled.
I can say this with absolute certainty because over the past few months I've journeyed frequently to Stamford Hill to hear this revulsion articulated at first hand.

That charedim should contact me is significant. What is infinitely more significant is that they have clearly lost patience with the Pinter way of doing things, and are availing themselves of the redress machinery offered by the state to any aggrieved parent vis-à-vis a taxpayer-funded school.

Why are these parents aggrieved? The YH senior girls' school is heavily oversubscribed. The rules governing admission to the school rely heavily on the deliberately inexact definition of "charedi" issued by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

No television or internet means what it says. But what is one to make of the reference to "trendy" clothes, or to "following trends" that "do not clearly negate the Halocho?" The room for purely subjective interpretation here is vast.

The admissions criteria for YH make it clear that girls who meet whatever these criteria mean will be given preference over what are termed "other charedi Jewish girls." This is a complete nonsense.

As one parent of daughters already attending YH senior school alleged (in a letter dated June 27 to the "Learning Trust" responsible for the oversight of schools in Hackney), "the school's criteria are a mask for exclusion to keep out girls from families that the school wishes to exclude at its whim." This parent also drew attention to the difficulty that parents of children attending primary schools outside the YH system have in obtaining details of YH admissions protocols. It is a complaint that I have heard frequently during my Stamford Hill excursions.

In its otherwise effusive Ofsted report, the only aspect of provision to have received a grade three - the lowest grade of "pass" - was that dealing with "the extent to which governors … discharge their responsibilities". Formally, the management of the YH senior girls' school is the responsibility of the governing body. Who are the governors of the school? The Learning Trust could not tell me. I had to exercise my legal right to peruse the minutes of the governing body to discover this information.

Any parent who complains to "the authorities" about alleged shortcomings runs the risk of brutal social and religious ostracism, and worse.

"If your children's marriage and happiness mean anything to you," ran an anonymous email sent to one complaining parent in 2008, "then it's best that you… reassess your position."

I am not for one moment accusing the Pinters of having been in any way responsible for this communication. What I am saying is that it was a grave mistake of Solomon Schonfeld to have run his Jewish Secondary Schools Movement as essentially a private fiefdom even after its flagship school entered the public sector. The rabbis Pinter and their families need to learn this lesson.

Last updated: 2:29pm, December 29 2010