‘Children being educated in dank, squalid conditions… taught solely religious texts at the expense of learning basic English.”
These were just some of the examples given by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman last month, as she highlighted the proliferation of unregistered schools in Britain.
Few readers, I hope, would deem those desirable conditions for educating the next generation.
After all, we Jews pride ourselves on what we teach our children; we celebrate exam results with as much gusto as we do barmitzvahs. Our narrative is that education has been key to our survival, vital in taking us from unwanted refugees in Britain to a secure community today.
Amanda Spielman wasn’t just talking about children caught up in cults, or about the Trojan Horse scandal. She wasn’t just talking about other people’s children.
She was talking about those in our community, too, children who, evidence suggests, are frequently being taught only about Judaism and only in Yiddish.
Children with poor literacy and numeracy, receiving an education that does nothing to prepare them for adult life here. An education that so limits prospects that, in Hackney, 44 per cent of Jews over 16 have no qualifications.
An education designed to keep the next generation in the fold by giving them no opportunity to learn about alternatives, and no ability to make it outside should they choose to leave. An education that is, frankly, a stain on our community.
Last week, Hackney Council’s Children and Young People Scrutiny Commission published a devastating indictment of the education offered to the borough’s Charedi children. I’m not talking about the official Strictly Orthodox schools, but the ones that are unofficial, by dint of being yeshivot.
There is a lot in a name, it turns out, because these are still educating school-age children. Up to 1,500 teenage boys, the report concluded, are being educated at up to 35 unregulated, unlicensed institutions offering limited safeguards and shockingly below-par core curriculum teaching. According to the report, which drew evidence from an anonymous survey, some are being subjected to physical abuse as punishment and some yeshivot operate in unsafe buildings. The report suggests 6,000 children nationwide may be affected. In a few years, Canvey Island may well be dealing with this.
This subject comes up time and again. The Sunday Times last July quoted a former pupil who recalled being hit on a “daily basis”. In 2015, Spielman’s predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned that “not enough is being done to stop this illegal activity”.
In fact — despite these schools being unregistered — we cannot pretend we are unaware of their existence. And yet this scandal is able to persist in art part because it’s something Britain’s mainstream Jewish community has little stomach for.
Where is the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation? Where are the community leaders in this conversation? Where are those who campaign for more faith schools, since this surely weakens their case? Why aren’t they screaming from the rooftops that you can offer an education with Jewish values that is not stuck in the dark ages? Instead, we have the JLC-linked Partnership for Jewish Schools’ executive director, Rabbi David Meyer, complaining Ofsted is obsessed with Jewish schools, and Interlink’s Chaya Spitz warning of the state “withdrawing our religious freedoms”, rather than addressing the educational rights of young people.
As the report explains, the Charedim won’t register these yeshivot because “expectations about the curriculum will be imposed which are incompatible with religious belief”. Knowing this, Ofsted has called for the law to be updated, arguing a better definition of a school is needed so “institutions that should be inspected cannot evade scrutiny”. Hackney Council has echoed this, saying the current law is “woefully inadequate”.
Instead of the usual platitudes about the contribution of the Jews, the Government would better serve our community by addressing this outrage. With a new Education Secretary in place, now is the time for action and the Jewish community must get behind the campaign.
If it were any other faith group, we would be appalled. Privately, I’m sure many of us are. We must say so publicly. We must say we are disgusted that members of our community are being denied opportunity and choice.
This isn’t about stopping Charedim from attending yeshivot but ensuring school-age children get mainstream schooling, too. Nor is it about faith schools per se, albeit that more than half of independent Jewish schools inspected by Ofsted in 2016/17 were judged unsatisfactory. But if these unregistered institutions really are fine, as Charedi spokespeople claim, and delivering an adequate education, then let Ofsted in and show the world. And, if they won’t, perhaps it’s time for the wider community to push open the doors.