Does any Jewish school stand a chance after this?

December 23, 2016 11:12

The rejection of Barkai Colleges application to open a new Jewish secondary free school in London is extraordinary because of one of the principal reasons given by the Department for Education. 

No one would have expected its bid to fail because its curriculum was considered not “broad or balanced” enough to prepare pupils for growing up in Britain, and its quota of Jewish studies and Hebrew – 20 per cent for the first two years – “disproportionate”.

Barkai’s promoters are generally on the left-wing of Orthodoxy and include several veteran Limmudniks. They combine commitment to Judaism with an open-minded attitude to secular culture and belief in all-round education.

They pledged to offer an alternative religious option to children of other faiths who came to the school.

They consulted about their bid with the New Schools Network, the charity which advises free school bids.

If education officials had been uncertain about Barkai’s outlook, they could have cleared their doubts at an interview.

But the DfE’s comments now raise the question whether any Jewish free school bid stands a chance in future — at least a Jewish school proposing to offer a decent amount of Jewish education.

What is more astonishing is that the decision comes only a few months after the government promised to relax free-school entry rules to enable more faith schools to enter the state fold.

Currently free schools are permitted to guarantee only half their places on the basis of faith.

But it was the government’s pledge to lift the cap on faith admissions which led the Chief Rabbi to drop his previous reservations about free schools — and then to back the second Jewish free school bid, Kavanah College, with Barkai being considered too liberal.

Given there are some strictly Orthodox schools already in the state system which allocate more time to Jewish studies than Barkai was proposing to do, it is hard to fathom the DfE’s thinking.

In fact, the government’s proposed changes on free schools had fuelled hopes among the strictly Orthodox educational sector that it might become easier to apply for a Charedi free school. But if Barkai has come a cropper, what chance of a Charedi application winning support?

The rejection of Barkai also calls into question the government’s “British values” agenda, which is primarily designed to counter extremism in the education system.

On the one hand, the government professes to encourage faith schools which it sees as a force for good, but on the one other hand it seeks to curb religious insularity.

It now appears the British values policy is being applied by some officials far more widely than might have originally been envisaged.

December 23, 2016 11:12

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