It is more a case of what did not happen this year rather than what did. A year ago, the Department for Education rejected both bids for a new Orthodox Jewish secondary free school in North-West London.
The two groups quickly came together and prepared to submit a joint application when the next round of bids was due to open in March. But it was delayed… and delayed… and delayed. Mired in Brexit and then with the loss of its majority, the government had more pressing issues to worry about. Although it has now indicated it will open the bidding early next year, its promise to prioritise schools for deprived areas does not sound good for a new mainstream Jewish school.
Meanwhile, aware of the problems of children not getting places in recent years, both JFS and JCoSS offered bulge classes this autumn to accommodate additional demand.
The government is also keeping us waiting on the promise made a year ago — and reiterated in the Conservatives’ election manifesto — to remove the cap on entry to free schools, which are allowed to admit only half their children on the basis of faith. The Catholic Church has lobbied hard for the removal of the quota and the Strictly Orthodox Jewish sector would like to see it go, too. But pressed about a timetable, the DfE simply repeats “in due course.”
For Jewish schools, as for other state schools, the biggest worry is money. The government backtracked and said it would review a new national funding formula that would have left most state-aided Jewish schools worse off.
But they are not hopeful about their budgets when these will become known early next year. One of the biggest challenges for Jewish education in coming years may be how to maintain standards with shrinking state support.
At least, one respite for Jewish schools was the decision of HMRC to restore Gift Aid relief on voluntary parental contributions for Jewish studies, plugging a hole that would cost a school like JFS hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
The clash between equality law and religious freedom continues to be a headache for some of the more frum schools. The impact on Jewish schools from a court ruling that it was illegal entirely to segregate boys and girls at a state-aided Muslim school is still unclear but Hasmonean High School, which teaches boys and girls on separate sites, will probably have to divide into two schools.
More recently, a Jewish teacher successfully sued an Orthodox nursery for discrimination when she was fired after it learned she was living with her boyfriend.
Strictly Orthodox independent schools are likely to face continuing travails at the hands of Ofsted, though whether the DfE will take the drastic step of closing any remains to be seen.
Ofsted is clearly frustrated that the state lacks legislative power to crack down on schools it believes are flouting secular standards. When its chief inspector Amanda Spielman said at the launch of her annual report this month that the inspection service had found “schools in which there is a flat refusal to acknowledge the existence of… lesbian, gay and bisexual people”, a number of independent Jewish schools fall into that bracket.
Ofsted also wants tougher regulation of unregistered faith institutions such as yeshivot. But the results of a government consultation on how to police such institutions is yet another delayed item.
Simon Rocker edits the JC’s Education section.