Family & Education

Government rejects proposed free school for being too Jewish

Department of Education argues curriculum will fail to ‘prepare children for life in Britain’


The Department for Education has rejected a bid to open a new Jewish free school because its modern Orthodox curriculum would fail to equip pupils for life in Britain. Barkai College — one of two applicants to start a secondary school in north-west London — was told by the DFE this week its plan to devote a fifth of its lessons in the first two years to Hebrew and Jewish studies was “disproportionate”. Eve Sacks, chairman of the Barkai group, said the reasoning “undermines anyone looking to set up a Jewish school in future”.

She said: “The benefits of having a Jewish school are limited if you can’t deliver a basic amount of Jewish education.” The DfE, which is expected to announce successful bidders in March, said it would not comment on individual applications.

Meanwhile, there was confusion over the fate of the other bid from the United Synagogue-backed Kavanah College after Partnerships for Jewish Schools, the Jewish Leadership Council’s education division, issued a press release on Wednesday saying the DFE had turned down both applicants. But later Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of Pajes, apologised to Andrew Rotenberg, one of the leaders of the Kavanah team, saying the source for his information may have “got things wrong”.

Mr Rotenberg made clear Kavanah has received no word about the status of its bid from the education authorities. Barkai’s application had been widely seen as on the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum. It planned to allow girls to read from the Sefer Torah in women-only prayer groups and non-Orthodox rabbis to speak at the school on interfaith and other social issues — which placed it at odds with current United Synagogue policy.

According to Ms Sacks, it proposed to devote three out of 30 periods a week to Jewish studies — which would include teaching about other religions — and another three to Hebrew in the first two years. By the third year, both subjects would be optional. This proportion of “Jewish” subjects bore comparison with arrangements in other mainstream Jewish secondary schools in the UK, she said. But she was told in an email from the DfE on Tuesday it had not shown its curriculum was “sufficiently broad and balanced to prepare children for life in Britain”.

The time devoted to faith-based studies was “disproportionate” compared to the allocation to core subjects such as English, maths or science, she was told. Two other grounds had been given for the rejection which she considered minor, including aspects of Barkai’s staffing plan.

She said: “We are obviously saddened that the DfE has made this decision. We put together this bid in consultation with parents and leaders across the Jewish and wider community and know there is a strong demand for the type of school that we envision. “Many of us on the team are parents of children who would have benefited from a school like Barkai and we understand that there will be many disappointed parents as a result of this decision.”

The campaigns for a new Jewish school began earlier this year, generated by fears among parents of too few places to cope with rising demand in the capital in the coming years. A shortfall of around 135 places by the year 2022 was predicted by one piece of research. But Pajes has indicated fresh thought is now being given to expanding the intake of existing Jewish schools in order to ensure no Jewish child is left without a place in future.

In its earlier press release, Pajes said: “In many ways, this is a far more economical alternative and will also help mitigate the shortages in teachers and educational resources”. Rabbi Meyer later explained to Mr Rotenberg he had heard Kavanah’s bid had been unsuccessful from “a person who works in the community” but acknowledged “it may well be he has got things wrong”. Rabbi Meyer said he would “try and spread the word that you have not heard and I hope you hear positive things soon”. 


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