Family & Education

Let’s Talk Schools: what lies behind the yellow star protests?

A bill to register children out of school is seen as a threat to Strictly Orthodox yeshivot


Protest against out-of-school register bill in Westminser

A few weeks ago a group of Chasidic men and youth marched outside Parliament bearing placards and Union Jacks and — most eye-catching of all — yellow stars attached to their black frockcoats.

Many might think the use of this emblematic badge of Jewish persecution scarcely justified by the object of the protest: a Private Members’ Bill tabled by Flick Drummond, the Conservative MP for Meon Valley in Hampshire, who wants local authorities to compile a register of children being home-schooled or taught in other out-of-school settings.

These settings include a number of yeshivot, where an estimated 1,500 or so boys aged from 13 to 16 from Stamford Hill are learning with little or no secular education.

For the protesters, the registration scheme would mark an unwelcome first step towards regulating yeshivot, which currently are not classified as schools and so exempt from rules that govern the education system elsewhere.

Private Members’ Bills often fall by the wayside but what is different this time is that the government is backing the proposed legislation, giving it a much greater chance of success.

The Bill would require parents to notify their local authority if their child was eligible for registration and if they failed to provide the necessary information, they could be fined. Not only would the authority be able to keep track of the whereabouts of children not in school but it could also check if a child were receiving a “suitable education” and, if not, order parents to send them to a recognised school.

For most of British Jewry, this is a battle they can sit out. The Office of the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies are not involved. By no means is all the Charedi community affected, either: on its more modern flank, many boys attend school at least until they are 16 (as generally do girls in Stamford Hill).

But in more conservative circles, defence of the yeshivot is considered a matter of principle. Leading rabbis from the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations have thrown their weight behind opposition to the Bill, as have colleagues from Gateshead, led by the influential yeshivah head, Rabbi Avrohom Gurwicz.

If the legislation came into effect, the Gateshead rabbis warned, it would “enable the imposition of educational doctrines that are alien to us”. They were adamant: “No power in the world will make us deviate even slightly from continuing the holy education and yeshivahs…”

Opponents of the Bill argue that they are fighting to safeguard the precious rights of parents to educate children in accordance with their wishes. But as we have recently seen, in a High Court judgment that upheld the decision of a state school to prohibit prayers on site after a challenge by a Muslim pupil, religious freedoms only go so far.

Six years ago Hackney Council issued a report that expressed concern at the lack of secular education offered by local yeshivot and frustration at the lack of legal remedies. The Drummond Bill would give the council power to monitor “missing boys” in the area — though the numbers involved may be hard for officials to cope with.

For Hackney Council, co-operation would obviously be preferable to enforcement. The demonstrations clearly show the strength of feeling against the Bill. But if it passed into law, what next? After all, respect for the law is one of the “British values” that schools are expected to promote. Would opponents concede defeat and reluctantly comply, or would some defy it, or find a way round it?

Political events, however, could yet spare yeshivah partisans having to make a choice. With an election likely to be called later in the year, the Bill could still run out of parliamentary road and be left hanging as unfinished business by the time MPs rise to face the voters.

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