Synagogue links 'don't guarantee school place'

By Simon Rocker, January 14, 2010

Jewish schools have been warned by the body which scrutinises the admissions policies of state schools that there could be problems in accepting pupils according to synagogue membership.

Elizabeth Passmore, the Schools Adjudicator, said that, because shuls charged fees for membership, schools could be breaking the government’s admissions code which banned offering places according to financial means.

Her concern emerged in recent reports on two Jewish schools whose 2010 entry policies were queried by their local councils: Manchester Mesivta, a strictly Orthodox secondary school in Bury, and Akiva, a Progressive primary in Barnet, north-west London.

Dr Passmore approved Akiva’s policy of giving preference to pupils whose parents belonged to Reform or Liberal synagogues or the New North London Masorti congregation.

But she did so only with the assurance that membership of a synagogue is possible without a financial commitment, and people would not be refused it “on monetary grounds”. She concluded: “I remain concerned that criteria specifying membership of a synagogue which has fees that are usually paid by members, are very close to contravening the code.”

Mesivta dropped its requirements for actual membership of an Orthodox synagogue, instead relying on parents being able to show daily participation in “the worship and observances” of an Orthodox congregation.

In her report on Mesivta, Dr Passmore said she had asked whether a membership was possible without paying fees.

“Although I accept what was said about support for the community and, rather than charging, helping those who may be in financially straitened circumstances, I have not received an assurance about membership that makes me feel able to leave membership as a requirement for meeting the faith-based criterion,” she said.

Both schools were forced to make changes in their guidelines for entry this year after local councils had complained about a lack of clarity.

Dr Passmore told another strictly Orthodox Manchester school, the Yesoidah Hatorah Primary in Prestwich, that it could not seek an undertaking from the parents of applicants not to have a TV at home.

This was because such requirements would represent “a home-school agreement” and these cannot be signed by parents before their children have been offered a place.

However, the school, which comes under the aegis of the Bury local authority, is allowed to say that it will give preference to Charedi children who follow the Shulchan Aruch — the Code of Jewish Law — and in particular guidelines that cover home lifestyle and dress.

Dos and don’ts of school entry

Parents of applicants to the strictly Orthodox, state-aided Yesoiday Hatorah Primary School in Prestwich, Lancs, are expected to follow a Charedi lifestyle which includes:

- Children not having a TV at home, being able to use the Internet or playing in a house with a TV

- Children not bringing sports insignia to school or supporting football teams outside

- Fathers wearing a jacket and hat at prayer

- Mothers adopting a modest style of dress. Sheitels should not be beyond shoulder length, skirts should cover the knee when sitting and not fall below ankles: clothes should “not be partially see-through”, hair should not protrude from snoods and caps and hats should not be worn

Last updated: 4:29pm, January 14 2010