More entry rules trouble for schools

November 24, 2016 23:22

Yet another Jewish school has been forced to tear up its entry policy after the government’s regulator ruled it unacceptable.

The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) has now ordered the Hasmonean High School in London to make changes, just days after its decision against the King David High School in Manchester.

Complaints against both schools had been made by the Fair Admissions Campaign, an offshoot of lobby group Accord, which is chaired by Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain.

Drawing up admissions principles which satisfy the national code has increasingly become a headache for governors. The OSA seems ready to pounce on any loose wording or entry requirement that it considers not clear, objective or fair.

A couple of years ago, the OSA told the cross-communal Clore Shalom in Hertfordshire that it could no longer give priority to children in its nursery when allocating places in reception class. In recent weeks, a wave of similar rulings has gone against Jewish primaries and clearly any that still retain nursery attendance as an admissions criterion can expect the OSA to disallow it.

The OSA argued that parents would otherwise face undue pressure to send their children to the school’s nursery in order to secure a place in the main school. And people who newly move into an area with children not at the nursery would be disadvantaged when applying to the local school.

But the rule changes may upset other families. Imagine children in a nursery class who before would have automatically been guaranteed a place in reception, but now may be unable to join their friends in the main school the following year.

As a result of the shortage of Jewish primary places in Hertfordshire, some parents have had to send their children to nurseries further afield, such as Sinai in Kenton. If you were to change the entry policy, say, to make proximity to the school the main priority, that would penalise parents who live further away .

The OSA ruling against King David Manchester was for entirely different reasons. King David had been giving priority firstly to children who were members of Orthodox synagogues.

Only days earlier the OSA had told the cross-communal Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS) in London that it could no longer include synagogue membership at all as part of its admissions policy. Synagogues charged fees — even if not everyone had to pay — and there could not be a link between entry and fee-paying institutions, the OSA said.

But it found a second objection in the case of King David, harking back to the Supreme Court judgment which forced JFS and other schools to change their entry criteria five years ago. Until then, it had been possible for a child to gain a place simply because their mother was Jewish.

But the courts ruled that as Jews were legally considered an ethnic, as well as a religious, group, using parentage as an entry condition was a matter of ethnic origin and thus breached laws against racial discrimination.

The OSA has now argued that to belong to an Orthodox synagogue depends on your Jewish status, which is based on your mother’s origins: so to use synagogue membership for school entry could constitute indirect racial discrimination.

As for Hasmonean, the OSA identified several problems, but mainly that its rules were simply too subjective and vague. The school had preferred pupils from families who could, for instance, demonstrate “active participation in an Orthodox synagogue”. But not just any Orthodox synagogue; it had to be one which met the approval of the rabbis of the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement, Hasmonean’s supervisory body.

The OSA, however, said that the school needed to define its religious criteria more tightly and the JSSM ought to produce a list of qualifying synagogues. The school was also told it could not ask parents for their ketubah, marriage certificate.

It remains possible, of course, for Jewish schools to set rules about Jewish observance for admission purposes. In the case of the Charedi Yesodey Hatorah Girls’ Senior School in Stamford Hill, the OSA has accepted that it could give priority to girls who did not watch TV or use the internet at home.

And in the case of JFS and other schools, the OSA has said it is fine to include attendance at synagogue a certain number of times a year as part of its policy. But then you don’t have to be Jewish to go to synagogue and meet the entry test.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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