Family & Education

Charedi schools seek legal advice amid fears over equality guidelines

New guidelines on British values could be "a litmus test" for recognising religious diversity, lawyer says


Charedi schools are taking legal advice as new proposals from the government threaten to make it harder for them to conform to secular standards.

Draft guidelines for independent schools published for consultation by the Department for Education last week make it clear pupils should be told about same-sex relationships.

Trevor Asserson, whose Israel-based law firm has been active in the defence of Jewish religious rights, confirmed this week it is advising various schools.

Implementing the guidelines, he said, would be “a litmus test of whether the British values curriculum truly include a commitment to diversity, or whether that commitment is mere lip-service uttered by secularist ideologues”.

He hoped “the hot issues can be resolved and do not need to spill over into litigation but we are of course considering the legal arguments to be employed were litigation necessary”.

A number of Charedi schools have already failed to satisfy inspectors over the teaching of “British values” of respect for others, which require them to “pay regard” to protected groups under equality law: these include people who are of same-sex orientation or transgender.

Schools have argued that it should be possible to teach respect and tolerance for one’s fellow-citizens in general without having to touch on their sexuality.

But the proposed guidelines rule this out by stating it would not be enough to teach respect “in a general way”.

Although schools would not be required to promote same-sex marriage, the DfE says, they should promote “respect for other people, even if they…   choose to follow a lifestyle, or have protected characteristics, different from a pupil’s own or those prevalent in the pupil’s immediate community”.

The guidelines also say that, 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”.

Schools could face problems, too, if books suggest that roles are suitable for one gender rather than the other.

Another DfE document also proposes tougher enforcement action, with schools failing inspections given less time to put their house in order.
Last week, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, principal of the state-aided Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill, appealed to Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene to stop the “secular agenda” of inspection service Ofsted. His community was “being hounded out by those acting in the name of your government,” he said.

Earlier this month, the lobby group Humanists UK highlighted Yesodey Hatorah’s blotting out of the word “homosexuals” from a passage about Nazi policy in a history book.

The DfE said it recognised “the right of parents to secure an education for their children in accordance with their beliefs, but we expect schools to provide an education which equips their pupils for life in modern Britain — this applies equally to all types of schools.”

The Board of Deputies said it could be counterproductive to force schools to teach something against their religious ethos where they do “not actively discriminate against others”.

A reasonable compromise, it said, was for “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”.

Rabbi David Meyer of Partnerships for Jewish Schools said, “Most worryingly for the Orthodox Jewish community, many of [the government’s new] 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.”

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, according to his office, believes there should be no contradiction between teaching British values and protecting the Jewish ethos of schools. “He has made clear… there is a danger that British values become a form of fundamentalism in and of themselves and we continue to raise this concern at all levels of government,” a spokesman said.

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