Chasidic school takes on government


A Chasidic independent school has mounted a legal challenge against an order from the Department for Education restricting it from taking new pupils until standards improve .

Beis Aharon Trust, which runs a school for 347 boys aged from three to 13 in Stamford Hill, north London, is awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the Care Standards Tribunal.

The unusual DFE sanction, which follows a critical Ofsted report on the school in January, is further sign of the education authorities' crackdown on independent religious schools.

Ofsted highlighted a variety of shortcomings at Beis Aharon. Inspectors found that only one hour a day was devoted to the secular curriculum.

The school did not carry out checks on the suitability of staff with sufficient rigiour. It did not actively promote "fundamental British values" as required by law. Nor did it teach about respecting people of different sexual orientation while knowledge of other faiths was limited.

Inspectors found the word "Christmas" crossed out in a text book , while children believed the role of women was to cook and clean while men went to work.

Although English lessons were recently introduced earlier for the Yiddish-speaking children, Ofsted reported, knowledge of the language among younger boys remained "poor".

The tougher Ofsted inspection regime that has become evident in the past two years is not the least of Stamford Hill's problems.

In the past week another issue has brought a flurry of national media attention. While Beis Aharon is a registered school, hundreds of teenage Charedi boys from the age of 13 are currently thought to be out of the school system altogether and learning in unregistered yeshivot.

It is illegal to teach children under 16 in an unregistered institution and Ofsted has urged more concerted action to prevent it.

Despite the recent spate of headlines, JC first highlighted the question of the "lost" or "missing boys" seven years ago. In 2012, it emerged that the DFE estimated their number to be as many as 1,000.

Last year, the DFE told the JC that it had a list of 23 suspected unregistered yeshivot in Stamford Hill, although not a single yeshivah had been registered over the past two years.

Ofsted's treatment of registered Charedi schools has hardly encouraged the unregistered establishments to submit to state regulation.

But closing down unauthorised premises may not be so straightforward. A legal opinion sent to the department on behalf of one yeshivah argued that yeshivot are not technically schools under the definition of the law and so not required to register.

The DFE may be reluctant to pursue a course of action which could end up having to be thrashed out in the courts.

Even if the authorities were to opt for closure, another potential loophole remains. An institution could re-open as a club and claim that it is home-schooling children according to the wishes of their parents.

Meanwhile, the local education authority has rejected suggestions that it was party to a cover-up by destroying records relating to the lost boys several years ago.

In 2010, Hackney Learning Trust - which is now part of Hackney Council - asked Orthodox schools for pupil registers to help trace the whereabouts of pupils.

The council said this week that parents had objected to the authorities holding the information as a breach of data protection law. "We returned the information following a legal challenge," a Hackney spokesman explained.

But the DFE is now considering new measures to ensure that it can keep track of pupils. "We are taking steps to strengthen our guidance to schools on safeguarding," a spokesman said, "We plan to change regulations so that schools have a duty to inform local authorities in all circumstances where a pupil is removed from a school register."

A visit by Schools Minister Nick Gibb to Stamford Hill last week brought some comfort to Charedi representatives.

Levi Shapiro, one of a group of young activists known as the Jewish Community Council, felt that the minister had been sympathetic and "understood our arguments".

While Mr Shapiro acknowledged "ongoing issues" over Charedi education, he said that instead of threats to shut down institutions, "we have to sit down and find a solution".

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