New draft guidelines on independent schools could prove a further headache for Strictly Orthodox leaders by making it clear children should be told about people in same-sex relationships.
Charedi rabbis are already alarmed at the way existing policy on equality is being interpreted by school inspectors.
But the proposed new guidance – released by the Department for Education this week for public consultation – would leave Strictly Orthodox schools less room for manoeuvre.
According to current law, independent schools must teach respect and tolerance for others as part of British values, paying “regard” in particular to groups protected under equality law - which include those of same-sex orientation and transgender status.
A number of Charedi schools have failed to pass muster with inspectors because they do not explicitly mention such groups. They argue it should be enough to teach the general principle of respect without going into specific detail about relationships.
But now the draft guidelines spell out that it would be insufficient for schools to say they encourage respect “for all people in a general way”.
While schools would not be required to promote same-sex marriage or alternative lifestyles, they should promote “respect for other people, even if they hold views, choose to follow a lifestyle, or have protected characteristics, different from a pupil’s own or those prevalent in the pupil’s immediate community”.
Such education could be “age-appropriate”, the DfE says. Primary pupils should be “ aware of the ways in which people can be different and be respectful of those differences”.
Secondary schools should know about the protected groups in equality law and “accordingly understand the ways that people can be different and respect people who are different in those ways”.
Schools, the draft guidelines warn, could face problems if materials such as library books suggest that roles are suitable for one gender rather than the other.
While schools can teach creationism as part of religious belief, it should “not be presented as having a similar or superior evidence base to scientific theories”.
The draft guidelines also specify that children should be “able to read, speak and write English with adequate fluency for everyday life in England by the time they reach school leaving age.”
The Department for Education is also suggesting tougher action for schools that fail to meet the grade, saying they could face less time in future to make improvements before they are ordered to close or stop taking new pupils.
A few weeks ago the minister responsible for faith schools, Lord Agnew, called for a meeting with Charedi education leaders in Stamford Hill to address the failure of many local Jewish schools to comply with required standards.
One of the UK’s leading Charedi rabbis, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, the Gateshead Rav, suggested recently that the challenges Orthodox schools are facing amount to the “most serious issue” confronting British Jewry since Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews 700 years ago.
Even before this week’s policy papers, Charedi leaders in Stamford Hill had called for a day of prayer on Thursday because of the threat to education.
Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of the Jewish Leadership Council's education division, Partnerships for Jewish Schools, said the government's policy would "inevitably have a significant impact on schools in the more Orthodox segments of our community who have endeavored to educate their children in an environment designed to prioritise maintaining their cultural and religious values.
"Most worryingly for the Orthodox Jewish community, many of these proposals will be viewed as a direct challenge to their way of life and evidence of the disproportionate influence of marginal lobby groups seeking the secularisation of our schools' curriculum."
A spokesman for the Board of Deputies said, "Perhaps more than any other, our community knows the suffering of persecution and hatred because of who we are. LGBT people have suffered terrible victimisation throughout the ages, including alongside Jews in the Nazi era.
“At the same time, sections of our community have a conservative religious ethos that should be respected where it does not actively discriminate against others. Indeed, it may be counterproductive to force then to teach something against their ethos.
“Our view is that a reasonable compromise is to ensure strict school policies which ensure that, at a minimum, there will be zero tolerance for homophobic bullying, and that Jewish LGBT children in these socially conservative schools should be referred to spaces where they will be properly supported and affirmed outside of school, such as KeshetUK or the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group.”