A thousand boys are 'missing' from Orthodox schools
Education authorities are negotiating with London's strictly Orthodox community to resolve the situation of hundreds of "missing" boys - who are being taught in unlicensed yeshivot where they receive little or no secular education, rather than at school.
The Department of Education has opted for a diplomatic approach rather than legal action to crack down on unauthorised religious institutions.
As many as 1,000 boys, aged 13 to 16, "are thought to be missing" from the registered school system in the London Borough of Hackney, according to recently revealed official documents. The papers relate to a series of meetings that have taken place over the last three years between Charedi representatives and educational officials.
The department began making inquiries following a JC report in 2008, which contrasted the near-absence of boys in Charedi secondary schools in Hackney with the numbers of girls.
‘Our talks have been very constructive on the issue’
But "most local authorities" in the boroughs with large Jewish populations were "reluctant to assist" it, the department noted in 2009.
A DoE spokesman stated this week: "Any school offering full-time education to five or more pupils of compulsory school age should be registered by the department and has to meet the independent school standards set in regulations.
"The department's aim is that all schools which are operating should be registered, but believes that in this situation that is best achieved through co-operative working, rather than immediate use of the powers in the Education Act 2002, to prosecute proprietors of unregistered independent schools."
Independent schools are not obliged to teach the national curriculum, but they must give children up to 16 "a broad and balanced" curriculum, including lessons in English and be open to government inspection.
But, according to the DoE papers, "many boys will stop secular studies at the age of 13/14 and start attending yeshivahs where the curriculum is solely religious. Most yeshivahs are not registered as independent schools and are therefore operating illegally and without the most basic health, safety and child checks."
Last year, a DoE official, in a letter to a leading Stamford Hill rabbi, declared: "Whatever the motivation for placing children at these institutions, the department does not believe that it is in children's ultimate interests to be attending schools which have no external quality control."
A number of yeshivot are now being considered for registration, after talks with the Association of Jewish Schools and Organisations, headed by Rabbi Jehudah Baumgarten. He also chairs the education committee of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, the main Charedi body in London.
The DoE is also discussing how yeshivot might overcome difficulties in complying with required curriculum standards.
Rabbi Baumgarten said: "The discussions have been very constructive and we hope in time to be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion, without yeshivahs compromising any of their values."
But the JC understands that Rabbi Baumgarten is meeting resistance from some staunch ultra-conservative elements within Stamford Hill, who oppose state intervention.
There are an estimated 60 registered Orthodox independent schools, and the Charedi school-age population is expected to rise to 20,000 by the end of the decade.