Sacks sets ‘inclusive’ new school entry tests

US says bar should be low as possible

By Simon Rocker, August 6, 2009

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks this week issued admission guidelines to Jewish schools in the wake of the JFS court ruling.

New entry rules, based on Jewish practice, should be “as inclusive as possible”, he said, following the Court of Appeal’s recent ruling that it was unlawful to pick pupils according to whether or not their parents were Jewish.

But the advice could prove academic, because the House of Lords — in one of its final legal decisions before the new Supreme Court takes over — agreed last Friday to hear an appeal from JFS against the Appeal Court ruling.

Russell Kett, chairman of the JFS governors, said: “We have requested that this case be heard as swiftly as possible and hope their Lordships will be able to accomplish both this, and our objective to overturn the earlier judgment, before the end of October.”

But he declined to say whether the school has decided to offer a place in September to “M”, the boy whose rejection two years ago sparked the legal action.

The school was ordered by the Appeal Court last month to reconsider his application, and the Law Lords last week refused to allow a postponement of the decision.

Mr Kett said: “The school is not at liberty to discuss an individual. It is a matter between ourselves and the family.”

“M” was originally rejected by the school because the Office of the Chief Rabbi considered him not Jewish, as his mother was converted under non-Orthodox auspices.

But the Court of Appeal held that to base entry on parental descent was a matter of ethnicity, not religion, and thus in contravention of the Race Relations Act.

Since schools may still select pupils on religious grounds, Jewish schools have had to draw up new admissions criteria based on practice, rather than parental status, in time for the 2010 intake.

Sir Jonathan says that entry policies should be “inclusive rather than exclusive”. They should, he says, “reflect the rabbinic principle that the world stands on three things: Torah (Jewish study and knowledge), avodah (the life of religious observance and prayer) and gemillut chassadim (acts of kindness and social responsibility)”.

He says: “Evidence of practice in any one of these areas should normally be considered as positive evidence of religious commitment. Otherwise, schools risk denying the opportunity for an Orthodox Jewish religious education to many children who would greatly benefit from it.”

Schools will be free to devise their own entry policies but they will not be able to ask whether a child is halachically Jewish.

The new practice criteria, as suggested by the Chief Rabbi, would make no distinction between Orthodox and Progressive families; nor would schools be able to turn down the children of non-Orthodox converts if they met the entry standards.

But admitting children to school under the new rules would not mean recognition of their Jewish status, the Chief Rabbi stressed.

Last updated: 5:46pm, August 6 2009