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Why I have campaigned to limit faith schools

Rabbi Jonathan Romain is stepping down as chairman of the Accord Coalition but will remain involved in the organisation's campaign to stop faith schools becoming educational ghettoes

    Photo; Lawrence Purcell
    Photo; Lawrence Purcell

    There is no doubt that mainstream Jewish day schools largely perform well in the league tables but there is a social cost behind that academic success and it is probably too high.

    This has been the view of the Accord Coalition, which I helped found ten years ago and from which I am stepping down as chairman, although I will still be involved as president.

    In fact, so wedded was the Jewish community to the idea of Jewish schools — officially at least — that I was virtually crucified in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle when Accord was launched for daring to challenge them. Unofficially, three heads of Jewish organisations phoned to express their support, but felt they would jeopardise their jobs to do so publicly.

    It is worth asking why there has been such an explosion in Jewish schools, especially when (as someone put it) “the three Jonathans — Romain, Sacks and Wittenberg — all went to non-Jewish schools and still managed to become rabbis”.

    Yes, some parents want their children to have a deeper Jewish education; others were told it was the antidote to intermarriage (although ignoring the fact they would meet non-Jews later on at university and in the work-place).

    But many others turned to Jewish schools because previously good local state schools had declined and Jewish day schools were cheaper than going private.

    The problem is the consequence: sending one’s children to a Jewish school segregates them from wider society. It also divides the parents, who no longer meet non-Jewish mums and dads at the school gates, sports events and parents’ evenings.

    This escalates into a national problem when Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools have the same effect and suddenly their offspring grow up as strangers to each other. Precisely because it is a multi-faith society, we have to ensure it does not become a multi-fractious society. It also means that non-Jewish children do not get to know Jewish children, which leads to ignorance which can spiral into suspicion and deteriorate into prejudice. As we know only too well, in an unstable society it is minorities who are likely to suffer first.

    If we want an inclusive and tolerant society, then we have to have an inclusive and tolerant educational system that produces it.

    That is why Accord helped persuade the government to insist that a new faith-based free school can take only 50 per cent of its pupils from one particular faith. We want schools to accept all children, not become educational ghettos.

    Similarly, we succeeded in helping to change GCSE RE from being a one faith to a two-faith subject: so that children do not simply look in the mirror, but study another religion, too. 

    It is right that Jewish children understand those around them and in our interest that other children learn about Judaism. Knowledge and empathy will provide a much better long-term security to us than CCTV cameras.

    I accept that many will disagree but I wonder if they think that separate Muslim and Hindu schools hinder or enhance social cohesion nationally. If the answer is the former, then that applies also to Jewish ones.

    The ideal would be to have schools that admit pupils from multiple backgrounds and which treat all faiths with respect. Schools should be about broadening horizons,
    whereas the faith element can come from the home, places of worship, after-school and weekend classes. 

    As a congregational rabbi, I am passionate about promoting Judaism, both within the community and outside it. I am equally adamant that faith should not be used to isolate different sections of the next generation from each other.


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