Our schools must act lawfully

A hundred years ago, an historic compromise was arrived at to settle the vexed question of taxpayer-funded faith-based schools in the UK. That compromise is now under threat. But whilst the future of all “maintained” faith schools is under scrutiny once more, none are more threatened than those that profess one or more variants of the Jewish faith. And whilst some of the pressures that have led to this scrutiny are general in nature, others are very much specific to British Jewry. There ought to be a communal policy already agreed and in place to address the issues that have arisen. But there isn’t.

The historic compromise arrived at 100 years ago was that taxpayers’ money could be used to support

“denominational” schools, but not the denominational instruction that took place inside them. The state would pay for the upkeep of these schools, and for the secular education that they delivered. Religious denominations would pay for the religious instruction.

This compromise, enshrined in the Education Acts of 1902 and 1903, was reaffirmed in the Education Act of 1944. Among other things, the 1944 legislation (the major themes of which still govern the funding and conduct of primary and secondary education in England and Wales) prohibits absolutely the charging of any fee by any taxpayer-funded school. This prohibition, therefore, is not new. It has been around for over 60 years. But it is regularly breached by Jewish schools in the maintained sector.

The law is quite clear: no taxpayer-funded school can make the admission of any child contingent on the payment of so much as one penny by the parent or guardian. It matters not whether this contingent donation is called an “admissions fee”, a “voluntary donation” or a “charitable contribution”. It matters not that the monies so paid may be remitted in due course, or that the cheque is not necessarily presented for payment (as the Hasmonean primary school lamely alleges is its practice where a child is ultimately refused a place), or (as this school also pleads) that the monies so collected are merely “offset” against the first term’s “voluntary” contribution towards religious studies. It is illegal to levy such a charge as a condition of entry.

Some years ago, when I brought such practices (as then enforced in a number of Jewish maintained schools) to the attention of the Board of Deputies, I was vilified and pilloried. The Board huffed and puffed, but, to its shame, did nothing of any substance. Meanwhile, the practices have continued unabated. They now form a central element in a politically inspired onslaught against the very existence of maintained faith schools.

This onslaught is being orchestrated by those who claim that socio-economic divisions in British society have deepened since Labour came to power in 1997. Public-sector faith schools are seen as a major instrument by which the middle-classes (whatever that phrase might mean) have been able to ensure the survival of social segregation — and to ensure its survival, moreover, with massive help from the British taxpayer.

Last week, in evidence submitted to the education committee of the House of Commons, a researcher at the Institute of Education claimed that “covert selection” by religious state schools included the charging of fees but also the imposition of other “potentially selective” criteria, including interviewing pupils, assessing family background, and the application of religious tests. Many of these practices — but not the application of religious tests — had been outlawed in a code of practice introduced last year. But apparently they are still widespread.

I believe this research to be fundamentally misconceived. It is driven by a political agenda that has nothing whatever to do with education but everything to do with social envy and social engineering. It is underpinned by the belief that education achievement can — somehow — be divorced from parental influence and family environment.

Well, it can’t. Not — that is — unless children are removed from their parents at or shortly after birth, and placed in state-run kindergartens.

But however misguided and malign this political agenda might be, we would do well not to underestimate its staying power, and its capacity to destroy the very fine system of maintained Jewish primary and secondary schools we have created in this country.

It is vital, therefore, that these schools conduct themselves strictly in accordance with the law. Those that are acting unlawfully must be compelled to change their ways. And it will be far better for us to compel them, than for the state to intervene.

    Last updated: 10:00am, May 15 2008