What the Times got wrong about Charedi education

Instead of listening to those who leave, why do we never consider the stories of those who stay?

February 27, 2023 16:06

As a graduate of Hasidic boys’ school and yeshivas, my heart sank upon reading the Times weekend essay ‘Why I had to escape my Ultra-Orthodox life in London’.

Here we go again, I thought, treated to a sensational public unveiling of a Dickensian schooling experience, complete with hunger, beatings and deprivation of any true education.

Just maybe, for a change, it’s worth hearing the voice of the overwhelming majority of alumni of Charedi boys’ schools. Mine is typical.

I am proud of the education that I received. Starting out at my Talmud Torah school, I was welcomed to the Aleph Bet with pomp and ceremony on my third birthday. 

There was a strong focus on traditional Jewish education and I learnt the richness and depth of my heritage. I acquired four languages (by age twelve I was fluent in English, Hebrew and Yiddish, and confident to navigate the Aramaic of the Talmud), the content we covered was as broad as the Mishneh and Gemarah itself.  While grappling with its conquest we gained an enormous appetite for academic endeavor and learnt about critical thinking, rational argument, analysis and diligence.

Like the vast majority of Charedi boys’ schools, my Talmud Torah school was registered with the Department for Education (DfE) and fulfilled the requirements that were in force for the provision of secular education.

Back in my days we covered English, Maths and Science. Did we have the same breadth and balance of secular education that other schools do?  No, but that is the gift and prerogative of independent schools. They are independent and free to specialise.

The DfE regulations define a suitable base level of core subjects. Beyond this, independent schools have broad options regarding the education they provide. In Charedi boys’ schools, the difference is the emphasis on the teaching of traditional Jewish texts and studies. This is equivalent to other independent schools across the country that choose to specialise in subjects or areas of expertise outside of the state system norms.

Parents choose an independent school based on what is different about its educational offer. My parents sent me to Talmud Torah because of their profound desire to impart their unique heritage to the next generation. They wanted me to be fluent and expert in Torah, while at the same time receiving a decent secular education. Not only is this a legitimate aspiration but in doing so, they created within me deep bonds to Torah, Yiddishkeit and  K’lal Yisrael. I thank them for that.

By way of providing a historical and contextual understanding, a turning point for Charedi schools happened circa 2016, when a new inspection regime for independent schools came into force. At that point, a number of schools that had previously been independently assessed by Ofsted to be outstanding were now judged to be inadequate! Catching up with the new requirements has presented a substantial challenge.  We’ve seen this in many much-publicised Ofsted reports in these pages.

Chinuch UK, which represents 86 schools nationally, has been helping schools to meet their statutory requirements through an extensive improvement programme for secular studies. This has been a successful endeavour, with overall Ofsted judgements beginning to improve and inspection reports acknowledging the considerable efforts to meet all the required standards.

It is important to know that Charedi boys’ schools in England are subject to the same standards and regulations as any other school in the country. The Charedi education sector as a whole works hard to meet the standards set by the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted and are committed to delivering a high-quality education to its students. As a community, we appreciate that our next generation will need to compete in a global and modern economy and are ensuring that our children are well-prepared for this.

The Times last weekend was scathing about one young man’s experience in Toras Chesed yeshiva, which he blamed for his inability to function in modern British society. Three of my own brothers attended Toras Chesed Yeshiva – one is now a software developer in New York, one holds a senior role in food production and one is a retailer selling on Amazon. 

They would not be enjoying such success in commerce and modern tech if they had received the depraved, vacuous and outdated education portrayed in the Times. 

It’s about time we give credence to the voices of these alumni so that the Charedi education system is given the fair, balanced and honest hearing it deserves.

Joel Friedman JP is the Director of Public Affairs at the Pinter Trust and is one of the pioneers and leaders of the Canvey Island Jewish Community.

February 27, 2023 16:06

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