Family & Education

What party manifestos mean for faith schools

Conservative plans put a spoke in hopes for Charedi free schools


 Faith school policy may be low on the list of most people’s election priorities,  but each of the three main parties’ manifestos contains a challenge for the Jewish community — specifically, the more Orthodox part of it.

The Conservatives’ pledge to lift the restriction on entry rules for faith free schools was welcomed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis when Prime Minister Theresa May first made it last autumn. 

Whereas free schools can select only half their pupils on the basis of religion, the cap will go if the government returns to power. 

That would be good news in particular for the Charedi community, which regards the lack of control over admissions as a barrier to opening free schools. 

But not good news is the Conservatives’ decision to press ahead with another idea, originally floated in last year’s education Green Paper: applicants for faith free schools will have to “prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school”.

By relaxing entry rules, the government is giving faith schools greater freedom with one hand, while planning to saddle them with new conditions with the other.

How exactly would applicants “prove” support from other faiths? It is hard to imagine the rabbi of a steibl heading off to address a meeting at the local mosque in order to extol the virtues of learning Gemara.

The proposal also betrays lingering anxiety about single-faith schools. The kind of school which devotes half the day to Jewish studies would clearly find it hard to fulfil the free school criteria of the manifesto.

Judith Nemeth, executive director of the National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools, is surprised to see the requirement for faith school applicants to demonstrate support beyond their community since many professionals, she says, have “queried how this would work in practice”. 

A Hindu colleague told her: “It is part of their religion to try and attract non-Hindu pupils to their school. They used many marketing techniques but they did not manage to attract one.”

While the Labour manifesto contains no reference to faith schools as such, its education policy has implications for Jewish schools. Its rejection of any more “inefficient free schools” would return the decision-making on new faith schools to local councils rather than central government.

More significantly, Labour’s proposal to remove the VAT exemption on independent school fees would hit not only private schools such as Immanuel College, Kerem and Naima JPS, but also the independent Charedi sector (which is nominally fee-paying even if dependent on donations).

The Liberal Democrats voted only a few months ago to stop faith schools actually selecting children according to religion, but this has notably been left out of the party’s manifesto. Liberal leader Tim Farron, himself a practising Christian, may be wary of picking a fight with religious groups.

But the LibDems want to see “LGBT+ relationships” taught as part of the sex and education relationships curriculum in schools — a potential source of trouble for Charedi schools vehemently opposed to a secular egalitarian agenda.

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