Copy Charedi schools, don’t condemn them

There has been much talk of unregulated and failing Charedi schools, but this comes at the expense of the many positive lessons they can teach society as a whole, says Yoni Birnbaum

January 18, 2019 10:21

A recent New York-based online radio show I participated in proved something of a revelation. The theme of the programme was the current challenges facing the British Jewish community. After we had explored the predictable Labour-Corbyn saga, and I had asserted, to the surprise of the interviewer, that Jews were in fact not yet fleeing these shores en masse, he posed this follow-up question: “Do you think that the current challenges to Jewish education in Britain are also a manifestation of antisemitism?”

My turn to be surprised. I quickly disabused the interviewer on this point too, stating that the two were not linked at all. As a result, however, I was invited to explain to a somewhat confused American Jewish audience why Ofsted had chosen to attack Charedi schools in particular over certain aspects of their curriculum.

Twenty-first century Britain is a wonderful place in so many ways. It is what we rightly refer to as a malchut shel chesed — a country of benevolence and kindness. Yet, it is also an increasingly secular place. In 2017, a wide-ranging survey found that more than half of the British population now identify as having no religion at all. Most strikingly of all, three out of every four young people aged 18 – 24 self-identify as belonging to this group.

These societal changes have had a far wider impact than the well-documented free-fall in numbers attending Anglican (or indeed any) religious services. They have led to a seismic shift in attitude regarding the legitimacy of the religious voice in the public sphere. Furthermore — and this is the really critical point — they have engendered a serious lack of understanding regarding the very nature of religious belief itself.

So, the notion that parents should have the right to educate their children according to their own religious belief system has fallen dramatically on the scale of values that British society deems important. Those representing an alternative set of secular moral values are now seeking to impose their will on faith schools. In a Jewish context, this has been particularly pronounced in the context of the Charedi community.

But the real shame about the whole saga is that the same failure to understand the nature of religious belief is also drowning out the many positive lessons Charedi schools can teach society as a whole. To be sure, these schools sometimes get things wrong. There are examples of bad as well as good practice in every institution, and I am certainly not here to defend or justify the small minority of schools which are unregistered. But the Torah-based value system that Charedi schools are justly proud to follow leads to some remarkable examples of best practice that the wider British school system and its leadership should be queuing up to learn from.

In a recent conversation, the chair of governors of a popular London Charedi secondary school informed me that in his school they record less than one formally logged incident of bullying per year. Low level, petty playground bullying exists in every school of course and should never be dismissed as unimportant. But serious bullying, the type that in mainstream schools leads to online threats, knife crime and worse, simply does not exist.

The best example of this is cyber bullying. Country-wide, this is a massive issue. Parents helplessly watch the devastation wrought by smartphones in the hands of children too young to understand the power of their own devices. Yet, the majority of Charedi students do not even own smartphones. Unlike the rest of young modern Britain, the school smartphone culture has not been swallowed hook, line and sinker. And lest you think this is a peripheral institution cut off from the wider world, the same chair of governors informed me that nearly all the students in his school go on to some form of (secular) further education.

Surprised? That’s because the Charedi community, just like other faith communities in the UK, is regularly and frustratingly misunderstood in the ever-ongoing march towards secularisation. People are amazed to discover that rather than consisting of those who would prefer to live in the Stone Age, it is actually a respectable community of ordinary, upright citizens, loyal to their faith and loyal to this country, with a school system which has much to teach the rest of society. But when sweeping, inaccurate, generalisations and misrepresentations are regularly made about the entire Charedi community, is it any wonder that Ofsted goes for the jugular?



Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue

January 18, 2019 10:21

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