For most of us, the idea of the world literally being created in six days is no more plausible than that of the moon being made of green cheese. But while we’d have no problem with references to cheesy moons in fairytales or nursery rhymes we’d be scandalised if our children were taught it in science.
It is not illegal to teach the fundamentalist view of creation, but there are restrictions. According to Department for Education guidelines, local authorities should not fund nurseries or other early years providers who teach the world was created in six days as scientific fact.
According to my understanding of the guidelines – the Department for Education was not terribly helpful when I asked for clarification – you can teach this as religious belief as long as you do not claim there is scientific evidence for it.
Since most nursery schools do not have designated science classes and most three- or four-year-olds do not study cosmology or evolutionary theory, I am not sure where the stricture practically applies. But now the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations has become sufficiently anxious that they have told Charedi nurseries not to sign funding contracts if these involve an acceptance of the guidelines.
It is a potentially costly move. Hackney council says strictly Orthodox nurseries in the North London borough alone receive subsidies of over £7 million a year.
But it is also curious. The guidelines have been in force for more than three years, and I am not aware that any Charedi nursery has had trouble with the local authority in Hackney or anywhere else nor received a threat to its funding over the “creationism” clause. The rabbis nonetheless are prepared to sacrifice state funding for the protection of religious principle.
It is not the only problematic education issue for the Charedi rabbinate. A number of rabbis from different parts of the country recently met in Nottingham (the Midlands city was thought a convenient location between Gateshead and London).
Their aim was to try to agree some kind of unified stance in response to the difficulty many Charedi (mostly independent) schools have been having with Ofsted. Over the past two or three years a number of Charedi schools have failed to satisfy inspectors over the required teaching of “British values”.
The government says children should learn about respect and tolerance towards others. The independent school guidelines refer to minority groups protected from discrimination in equality law, which include those of same-sex orientation or transgender status.
Some inspectors therefore expect schools specifically to acknowledge such groups as part of British values. However, many Charedi schools argue it is against their religious ethos – in fact, they do not talk about sex of any kind, let alone same-sex, and say it should be enough to teach a general principle of respect towards fellow-citizens without having to go into detail.
To complicate matters, Charedi schools are not uniform. Manchester schools appear far more successful than those in Stamford Hill in getting through inspections. Lubavitch schools, for example, will explain to children that some families in Britain consist of two fathers, but then they are generally more open about issues to do with sex than other Chasidic sects.
Thirdly, there is the longstanding issue of unregistered yeshivot where boys from the age of 13 receive a Talmud-intensive diet with little or no secular classes. According to Hackney Council and Ofsted, the legal powers do not currently exist for the state to monitor such institutions or regulate their education.
For the Stamford Hill rabbinate, any meddling with the educational content of yeshivot is anathema. Their message to the state is simple: butt out.
All this matters not just because the Charedi community is a growing segment of British Jewry. The response to these educational challenges will help to determine relations between Charedi groups and the rest of the community.
On the defence of shechita or brit milah, there is broad consensus among Jews. So too in the belief that coroners should do what they can do to facilitiate speedy burials, in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Not so with education. Not only there are differences between right-wing and modern Orthodoxy, but there are differences among those who would call themselves Charedi too.
These educational conflict zones will increasingly put the Board of Deputies and other cross-communal institutions on the spot, too. They will have to decide how far to back Charedi demands for religious freedom; how far to maintain neutrality, saying it is not their problem: or whether they stick their neck out and side with the education authorities against the Stamford Hill rabbis, for example, in supporting the regulation of yeshivot.