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Strict believers are 'beyond belief'

    It sounded, at first, like a feel-good story.

    Last week, 34 Strictly Orthodox teenagers from Stamford Hill, on a half-term trip to Kent, got lost on a hike along the coast. Trapped by a rising tide, they realised their lives were in danger and alerted the police. A team of 40 rescuers eventually brought them to safety , guided by the lights on the kids' phones. In gratitude, the group donated £5,000 to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which co-ordinated their rescue.

    A genuine mistake, from which everyone has learned? All's well that ends well?

    Not so fast. Unfortunately, this is only the latest of a long list of similar incidents. They reveal a serious underlying problem with the Charedi community's attitude to the safety and welfare of their own children, and with the professional standards of some of their schools and youth organisations.

    In this case, the Ahavat Yisrael Community Centre group was supervised by only two adults. They were dressed inappropriately for a hike, in long black coats, white shirts and ordinary footwear. One of the adults miraculously kept his black hat on throughout the lifeboat rescue. They set off without maps or equipment, and ignored no less than nine danger signs.

    This would probably sound familiar to the Cockermouth and Wasdale mountain rescue team, which in 2009 called the police after rescuing a group of teenagers from Gateshead's Talmudical College who were stranded on one of Cumbria's most remote peaks - for the fourth time in five years!

    "It is a miracle none of these students have ever been killed," said team leader Julian Carradice, noting that the group was not equipped, not dressed correctly and badly supervised. "The way this group operates is beyond belief."

    It would sound familiar, too, to the rescuers of 39 girls and one teacher from the Beth Jacob Seminary for Girls who were stranded on a Scottish mountain with no map, and only black bin liners to protect themselves against the weather. They were "only a rain shower away from death", according to the incredulous Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team.

    Like the Ahavat Yisrael group, they shamelessly attempted to spin their way out of trouble, by sending their rescuers juvenile poems of thanks.

    I won't bother you with the details of Manchester's Kesser Torah Boys' School trip to Snowdonia, which resulted in a 12-year-old being airlifted to hospital, and the school being fined £3,500; or the rescue of 16 youngsters from the Pirchim Aguda community centre, in the Derbyshire Moors, after a five-hour search.

    Suffice to say, there is a long pattern of negligence and a stunning failure to learn lessons. That these groups understand so little about how to approach nature safely and responsibly, betrays just how little secular, practical education they have. One wonders whether the latest group actually understood what a tide is, and whether any of them would be able to read a map or had even heard of a compass. Geography, presumably, was not on the curriculum.


    None of the schools, yeshivas and community centres concerned seems to have in place any of the procedures that their mainstream equivalents consider basic when planning a school trip. Risk assessments, teacher-pupil ratios, qualified first-aiders, local guides, check-lists of necessary equipment? There's no concept of good governance or staff accountability.

    This is a symptom of a society which believes that secular rules do not apply to them; indeed, they are beneath them. If it's not in the Torah, it's a waste of time.

    Over the past year, Ofsted and the Department of Education have cracked down on unregistered Strictly Orthodox schools, which deny their students basic literacy and maths skills, and are reportedly shoddily run. Ofsted has also deemed a number of legal Strictly Orthodox schools inadequate.

    The Charedi community has consistently defined government inspection as outside interference and occasionally implied that the attention is malicious. They have argued that "their way" may be different, but it is valid.

    But these "nature incidents" show exactly why their argument is unacceptable. The failure to observe national standards and to acknowledge accepted process puts their children in real danger. They need to be held to the same basic educational and safety standards as the rest of the country, before their luck runs out.

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