I'm not in the least surprised that the Department for Education is carrying out an investigation into the education of Orthodox Jewish boys in institutions not officially registered for this purpose. On the contrary, I’m surprised that it has taken the government so long to convince itself — or to be convinced — that this is a scandal demanding investigation.
This is not the first time that this particular embarrassment has been brought out of the dirty-linen cupboard. On January 18 2008 this very newspaper ran a leader drawing attention to the fact that “many boys in the strictly Orthodox community are being systematically undereducated in secular studies” as a result of being placed surreptitiously in unregulated talmudical colleges.
What’s more, a decade earlier, in Modern British Jewry, I had written thus: “In north London, and Gateshead, stories circulate of ‘secret schools’, to which sectarian Orthodox parents send their children for an education which is almost exclusively religious, claiming to the education authorities that they have sent their offspring abroad.”
I based this observation on information passed to me by concerned Charedi families who did send their offspring to regulated establishments, where a modicum of secular learning was delivered, and who had — for that very reason — become the objects of communal opprobrium and sanction.
In using the word “communal” here, I’m not of course referring to the Anglo-Jewish community at large, nor even to the Charedi world at large, but rather to a small sub-set within that world. Within that sub-set, Jewish parents who sent their male offspring to government-regulated schools had found themselves at the receiving end of vile and in some respects sinister abuse from other parents — and their rabbinical mentors — who claimed that in obeying the law of the land they were disobeying the law of Moses, as interpreted by these obscure rabbis.
Within these conventicles it was, and still is, considered praiseworthy to disobey or (better still) cleverly circumvent the law of the land in the interests of what is disingenuously termed “Yiddishkeit”.
Following the publication of my reference to “secret schools” I was contacted by a government official, only to be told, politely but firmly, that while aware of the problem, Whitehall was loath to do anything about it on the grounds of “cultural sensitivity.”
What this meant was that Whitehall knew – or had reason strongly to suspect – that the law of the land was being circumvented, but had decided that the public duty to intervene had to be weighed against the risk of civil servants being pilloried as antisemitic. It was decided that this risk could not be run. Besides (my informant added), the number of children affected in this way was so very small.
Clearly, that number has grown. The Department for Education has now admitted that perhaps as many as 1,000 Anglo-Jewish boys aged between 13 and 16 are “missing” from the school system and are being taught instead in yeshivot — that is to say, in educational institutions that are unregistered, that in all probability deliver little or no secular education, and which are not subject to inspection by Ofsted.
In other words, criminal offences are being committed. But no-one could accuse the Department of being heavy-handed about this. It has now written to the yeshivot concerned and is offering its assistance in the registration process. Once registered, these yeshivot (even though they are privately funded) will be liable to Ofsted scrutiny. Ofsted may also exercise its right to enter any unregistered premises where it believes a school is being conducted.
The Taliban of Stamford Hill are naturally hard at work trying to avert this unpleasant prospect. It’s being argued that learning rabbinic texts all day does involve secular studies – such as reading and comprehension. No doubt.
But outside the religious world these texts have limited vocational relevance. For that reason alone the Ofsted inspectors must make their way into unregistered premises, and ensure that the pupils they find therein are given at least some semblance of the rounded education the state demands and the pupils deserve.