Family & Education

Are Jewish studies in our schools really outstanding?

We need a new framework to assess the teaching of our heritage


Is it time we changed the way we assess the teaching of Jewish studies? (Photo: Jewish Standard)

One of the benefits of Jewish life in the UK is the provision of free Jewish schools. As with all government-funded schools, almost all capital, administration and teaching costs are paid by the government. Entry is prioritised for children who demonstrably share the school’s Jewish ethos.

But beyond this, not much more is required from parents or guardians to secure a place for their children at most Jewish schools. Except at the most Orthodox, all that is requested (but not mandated), is that they pay a “voluntary contribution” to meet the costs of any religious teaching.

Government funding of Jewish schools is almost certainly a key reason why so many Jewish children attend Jewish schools in the UK. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research indicates that over 70 per cent of Jewish children in the UK attend a Jewish primary school and over 50 per cent a Jewish secondary school. The UK has the largest numbers of free Jewish schools anywhere in the world, outside Israel.

Jewish schools are among the very best free schools in the country, with three recently listed among the UK’s top 10 comprehensive schools. Pupils at Jewish schools achieve some of the best results in the country in English language and literature, mathematics, languages and sciences. These results are based on standardised tests, mainly assessed through GCSE and A-level.

In contrast, there is no way of knowing how well our Jewish schools are teaching Jewish subjects. There are no standardised tests in any subject relating to Jewish knowledge or skills. This is because, although Jewish schools are required by UK law to provide inspections for their religious education, these inspections do not test the skills and knowledge of the pupils.

Instead, their purpose is to assess the performance of the school, judged against each school’s own declared criteria for Jewish education. Mostly arranged through Pikuach (a department of the Board of Deputies), inspections consider only how well the school meets its own declared aims of Jewish education, however nebulous they may be.

There is no assessment of what students know of Jewish language, literature, history or culture. The majority of grades awarded by Pikuach – from the evidence of the past five years - are, therefore unsurprisingly, “outstanding”.

With thousands of our children at Jewish schools, why are there no standardised tests for Jewish studies?

Some argue that Jewish schools do not need to teach Jewish skills or knowledge; the purpose of the Jewish school is to imbue pupils with Jewish values and spirituality, often focused on ethical issues including environmentalism and social action.

But what then do our children know of their specific and extraordinary Jewish heritage, recorded in language, literature, history and philosophy over millennia and spanning geographies? What do they understand of written or spoken Hebrew, literature and thought, whether from the Bible, the Talmud, Rabbinic writings, poetry or novels? What about the relationship of Israel to the Jewish people and the history of the modern state?

Although wholly ignored in the UK, such questions have long engaged Jewish educators in North America and Israel. They are deeply concerned with both the purpose and the content of a meaningful Jewish education. In the USA, over 80 schools from across the Jewish religious spectrum subscribe to standardised tests administered by the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools. Tests are supported by well-defined curricula, managed for different stages and for different communal priorities.

Sadly, there are no similar outcomes expected of UK Jewish schools. Having entrusted our children to Jewish schools, surely our children need to be taught something of our extraordinary heritage, And we need to ensure they know and are proud of it.

We must establish a framework to define and assess the Jewish studies taught at Jewish schools. By wilfully ignoring the provision of meaningful Jewish education, Jewish schools are essentially socially-engineered “schools for Jews”. As such, they significantly undermine the prospects for Anglo-Jewry’s future.

Jo Rosenfelder is a media lawyer and co-founder of Etgar

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