Charedi fury over education ruling


Britain's Charedi schools are on a collision course with education authorities over a requirement to teach about same-sex relationships and other faiths.

At a special meeting at the end of last week, the rabbinical leadership of the London-based Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations made clear that no compromise was possible on religious principle.

Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, chairman of the Union's external affairs committee, said this week that "these are fundamental issues and there is no room for manoeuvre. We are not going to change our belief system."

Concerns have been mounting within the Charedi community about increasing criticism of their schools by Ofsted inspectors over standards of secular education.

Strictly Orthodox leaders have been particularly worried by the way inspectors are interpreting government directives for schools to promote "fundamental British values" of respect and tolerance in order to counteract extremism.

Their fears have now come to a head with a recent legal decision against a boys' school in Stamford Hill, which stated that teaching about sexual orientation, gender reassignment and other religions was required by law.

Rabbi Pinter commented: "It seemed to be an attack on our way of life. There are red lines we cannot cross."

He added that he was "quite sure that the government does not want to be in a position where the only option for Charedi families is home-schooling. There has to be some other way out."

Last month the Beis Aharon Trust, which runs an independent school in Stamford Hill for boys from three to 13, failed in an attempt to lift a Department for Education order not to admit new pupils after a series of critical Ofsted inspections.

The Care Standards Tribunal ruled that the sanction was justified because the school was still failing to teach a broad and balanced curriculum and promote fundamental British values.

In his written decision, presiding judge Hugh Brayne said that pupils would "not be equipped to enter modern British society, which accepts as part of its diversity civil partnerships, gay marriage, families with same-sex parents and acceptance of transgender persons".

Charedi schools argue that they have been complying with the British values agenda by teaching general respect for all people without going into specific detail about different groups or faiths.

But Judge Brayne said pupils would be unable to respect that "some people are different because of sexual orientation or gender assignment" if they remained ignorant of what these were.

He also criticised the school for placing stickers over images in textbooks of women in short sleeves because of reasons of modesty., saying that it "fails to encourage respect for women and girls". Although the books had been withdrawn, he added, "the evidence that pupils learn in school that women showing bare arms and legs are impure remains a concern."

The judge argued that it was not enough for the school simply to mention the existence of other faiths. "Because they cannot be taught anything about other faiths, pupils are not able to acquire the appreciation of other cultures required," he said.

The Union had explained its position in a letter given to the tribunal, which was written by a senior rabbi, Dayan Shalom Friedman and endorsed by his colleagues. "Religions other than authentic Judaism, beliefs, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, are forbidden in the Jewish faith," he wrote.

Citing Maimonides, Rabbi Friedman said that "anything that the Torah forbids, we are not allowed to put our minds to it".

Even subjects such as pregnancy were not taught until marriageable age, he explained, "because in our faith early teaching of this or similar teachings would confuse and defile the minds of pure innocent children".

Beis Aharon has promised to increase secular classes from an hour to an hour and a half a day. Whereas English lessons to the Yiddish-speaking pupils had been confined to the older year groups, they have recently been introduced to younger boys.

The next legal step open to Beis Aharon would be to appeal against the decision to the Upper Tribunal. But Rabbi Pinter said that "we want to find a resolution before it comes to that stage".

A Board of Deputies spokesman said that, while it would not comment on the tribunal case, "in general we support the government in implementing the regulatory framework which ensures that children have the best possible education".

The government and local authorities have faced increasing calls from secular lobby groups, as well as former members of the Charedi community who felt short-changed by their education, to act on religious schools.

GesherEU, a charity which represents ex-Charedim, recently told the Department for Education that many young men left strictly Orthodox schools "with almost no ability to speak English".

Meanwhile, a new organisation called Tafkid last week distributed leaflets in Stamford Hill offering confidential advice on how to improve English and maths, find tutors for children, study at university or get job qualifications.

One Stamford Hill resident said that local families had received automated phone messages from a Union-linked committee warning that Tafkid did not have official rabbbinic backing.

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