Let them eat packed lunches

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 13, 2008

Why is a Jewish school stopping its students from bringing in food from home?

Next Friday I shall attend the formal opening of Yavneh College in Borehamwood. The ceremony will be graced by the presence of a host of Jewish and non-Jewish dignitaries, chief among whom will be the Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools, Ed Balls.

In recent times, taxpayer-subsidised faith schools have attracted a great deal of disparagement, including criticism from within the Anglo-Jewish world. Mr Balls’s presence at the opening of Yavneh is therefore especially welcome. His officials will doubtless have briefed him as to Yavneh’s origins and ethos. I hope that these officials will also have insisted that he reads, in full, Yavneh’s first-ever Ofsted inspection report, compiled by one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors and — providentially — published earlier this month.

This report is the antidote to all the faith-school doomsayers. Yavneh is not a perfect school. There is no such thing. The report makes a number of recommendations, and I am sure that the headteacher, Dena Coleman, and her team will give these serious consideration.

But excellence is not perfection.  And Yavneh is certainly excellent. The inspector, Mark Phillips, and his colleagues have felt able to conclude that after just five terms “leadership and management are outstanding”; “standards of work are exceptionally high”; “the curriculum is outstanding”; “the spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of pupils’ development are all outstanding”; pupils’ behaviour and  attitude to learning are “exemplary”; “pupils know how well they are doing and are on track to meet their appropriately challenging targets”; and “care guidance and support for pupils are all outstanding”. 

The words “excellent” and “outstanding” occur nor less than nine times each in the Ofsted report, and in a covering letter to its students Mr Phillips commends what he calls “the Yavneh way” as a template upon which best practice in a maintained faith school should be based.

Most prominent among the Jewish guests at Yavneh’s opening will be Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who is the college’s religious authority. Sir Jonathan will be fully entitled to bask in the reflected glory that the college brings, and to sing its praises, as I’m sure he will. But as he does so, he will no doubt be pondering a situation at another maintained school under his aegis, whose management seems to me to fall significantly short of outstanding, and to which I am afraid I could not even confer the accolade of competent. Unless Sir Jonathan deals with this situation speedily, and with a great deal of common sense, it seems destined to join the lengthening list of Jewish educational causes that are settled before the secular courts, in public, because no one in authority has the courage to insist that they be settled amicably in private.

Unusually, I am not going to name the school here. This is because I wish to afford a final opportunity to its headteacher and governors to do what is right without the pressure of public disclosure by me. But when they read this column they will know that it is they to whom I am referring — and so will others, including Sir Jonathan, onto whose desk this matter must now fall.

The matter is in essence very straightforward. It concerns the right of a parent, at a Jewish maintained school, to provide her or his children with a daily packed lunch, and (therefore) to forgo the lunch provided by and cooked in the school’s kitchen. It’s as simple as that.

When our children attended a maintained Jewish primary school — also under the Chief Rabbi’s authority — my wife provided them with packed lunches. There was never the slightest problem about this. We were never told, for example, that the packed lunch had to consist of non-dairy sandwiches that carried the “unbroken seal of kashrut from an appropriate kashrut authority”. Nor was it ever suggested to us that “any food brought from any house where food was prepared without supervision would be classed as non-kosher”. If such a suggestion had been made, rest assured that my lawyer would have wasted little time in issuing a writ for defamation. But it wasn’t.

The situation I am describing is one that has come about, at the school I am not (for the moment) going to name, because of bureaucratic small-mindedness. Once the matter has been placed in Sir Jonathan’s hands, let us hope that he recognises and insists on the primacy of parental rights, and on the prevalence of reason and reasonableness over sheer bigotry and stupidity.

Last updated: 4:41pm, June 16 2008