The government has been criticised for failing to deal with unregistered yeshivot in a report published today by Hackney Council.
It says new laws should be considered “as a matter of urgency” to regulate unlicensed institutions, which teach an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 boys aged from 13 to 18 in the north London borough.
“There are few if any safeguards in place to ensure their safety and well-being or that they are being taught to an acceptable standard,” says the report after more than a year’s investigation by the council’s Children and Young People Scrutiny Commission.
There was no evidence of a curriculum adequately covering English, maths, science or broader humanities subjects, the commission found, adding: “The fact that a section of the population are not receiving the education deemed to be needed to thrive and live independently cannot be parked indefinitely.”
It noted that 44 per cent of Jews over 16 in the borough had no qualifications — compared with 20 per cent for the Hackney population as a whole.
Whereas 48 per cent of Jews aged 16 to 64 were in employment in Hackney, that was 10 per cent lower than for the borough in general.
Despite the “woefully inadequate” legislation that applied to children taught outside schools, the government had shown a “lack of willingness to engage with the serious nature of the issue and its potential consequences”.
Although it is illegal to run an unregistered school for children under 16, the commission says the yeshivot are not classified as illegal because they argue their type of education falls outside the legal definition of a school.
It has called for new laws to monitor “out of school” educational settings; to give inspectors greater powers to enter them; and to require parents who home-school their children to register their names with the local authorities.
The council believes the number of unregistered yeshivot in Hackney is in the region of 29 to 35, although local Charedi sources contend it is lower. Some 13 unregistered institutions are thought to be linked to registered Orthodox independent schools.
(Overall, there are believed to be up to 290 unregistered institutions in England.)
While representatives of the Charedi community said safeguarding of children was paramount, the commission said it had no received no assurances that adequate measures were in place.
The government’s position that no new legislation on out-of-school settings was on the cards for at least two years was “unacceptable”.
But while the commission wants the closure of legal loopholes, it says the only way to secure “consensual and lasting change” is to engage with the Charedi community. “Actions which are imposed will only further marginalise the community,” it says.
It has suggested creating a liaison body between community representatives such as yeshivah heads and the City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Board, a local agency able to advise on issues such as checking the suitability of staff to work with children.
Although there had been limited common ground between the community and professional agencies, there was a desire to “work together”.
While the council should lobby for changes in the law, it should also collaborate with the Charedi community “to find ways to improve the well-being of the children without disrespecting their religious and cultural beliefs”.
But the council should send information about safeguarding and educational standards directly to parents, “rather than relying on intermediary bodies”.
Charedi representatives explained that one key reason for not registering yeshivot as independent schools was because of curriculum requirements, producing “irreconcilable differences between what was required to be taught in independent schools and what the Orthodox Jewish community would consider acceptable”.
After recent experience of Ofsted inspection of independent schools, the community felt “targeted” and parents would send their children abroad or educate them at home rather than compromise their convictions, the commissioners were warned.
The Department for Education, following publication of the report, commented, “Unregistered schools are illegal and unsafe. There are clear powers in place for local authorities and the police to intervene where children are being put at risk or not receiving a suitable education. We expect them to use them and will support them to do so.
“We have established a joint team with Ofsted and given them additional resources to step up investigations into these schools and work with us to take whatever action is required, including closing the school or working with the police and Crown Prosecution Service as necessary."
Mike Sheridan, Ofsted's regional director for London, said the report supports the inspection service's call for the law to be strengthened "so that unregistered settings can be closed down or registered much more quickly. It is simply unacceptable that some groups choose to run unregistered settings to avoid complying with government regulations on safeguarding and the quality of education young people should receive."
He added: “A number of unregistered faith settings are deliberately operating outside of the legal framework and this is hugely concerning. Our inspectors have found dilapidated and unsafe premises and unvetted staff. Pupils can leave these settings with limited, if any, ability to read and write in English, no qualifications and no skills to get work. Clearly, this means they are unprepared for life in modern Britain.
“Every child deserves to receive a good education in a safe environment. So we will continue to work with government, local authorities, and law enforcement to ensure all settings operate legally or are shut down.”
GesherEU, a support group for former Charedi, said it applauded "any attempt to get to grips with a situation which for years has led to thousands of Jewish boys and girls being denied the skills to enable them to make choices in their lives".
But it was critical for the report for "being somewhat reticent in not calling for stringent standards when it comes to the teaching of the secular curriculum. We believe that thousands of children, particularly boys, are not receiving teaching in maths, English, sciences and the arts in order simply to keep them from moving out of the community."
EARLY YEARS LAGGGING BEHIND
Only 18 per cent of early-years children started independent schools in Hackney with a good level of development (GLD) in 2016, according to data produced for the council. This compares with 75 per cent starting state-aided primary schools in the borough with a GLD.
Most independent schools in Hackney serve the Charedi community.
The council suggests the low GLD score is because it is measured in English and children in Orthodox Jewish schools at that age are “at the early stages of learning English”.
Supporting the improved teaching of English in such schools remains a “priority”, the council says.