Former members of the Charedi community have told the government that some unregistered Orthodox schools and yeshivot are using corporal punishment on their pupils.
The GesherEU Support Network, a charity set up to help people leave the strictly Orthodox community, called for tighter control over such institutions in a submission to a Department for Education consultation.
The charity said it believed that “corporal punishment is still in use in a number of the yeshivot and unregistered ultra-Orthodox primary schools” in which it estimated as many as 4,000 boys and 1,500 girls could be studying.
Its evidence included the anonymous testimony of someone said to have attended one such primary school till the age of 13.
“A typical day in school would commence at 8 and finish at 6,” he claimed. “We would sit all day long and study religious texts. No secular studies were taught at all."
“The hygiene standards were awful. The toilets stank; I never ever used them during all these years and I suffered terribly from issues involving holding back. The food was hardly edible, the classrooms were old, and overcrowded. Hitting children was part of routine; I personally was hit almost on a daily basis.”
He then spent three years at a yeshivah until he was 16 where conditions were better. But he added that “the attitude towards other people and cultures was absolutely negative. We were bred in racism, sexism and bigotry”.
Corporal punishment was banned in British state schools in 1987, and in all private schools by 2003.
GesherEU told the DfE that it believed that unauthorised schools and yeshivot “do not promote British values and do not equip their students for life in modern Britain.
“In many cases they do not even teach them to speak English or simple arithmetic. They teach in Yiddish and Yiddish is spoken at home. Many young men leave with almost no ability to speak English. We have to support young men in particular, that do not have one GCSE to their name, cannot get a job, and have no skills to manage their lives."
GesherEU said that it could provide witnesses who would speak to the department.
Such institutions should be subject to Ofsted inspections and pupils should take the same tests in English, maths and science as they do in state-aided primary schools, the charity said.
But it accused Ofsted of failing to bring about change even in some registered Charedi independent schools which, Gesher said, continued “to teach only in Yiddish, indoctrinate the young children and fail to teach the basics”.
It is illegal to teach children under the age of 16 in an unregistered school for 20 or more hours, although some yeshivot have argued that they do not qualify as schools.
The consultation – which closed this week - was launched by the DFE over plans to extend registration and inspection to part-time institutions teaching more than six to eight hours a week.
In theory, that could include some synagogue religion classes although the vast majority do not teach that many hours.
In the Board of Deputies response to the consultation, its president Jonathan Arkush said that it remained concerned about anecdotal evidence of anti-Jewish teaching in some Muslim supplementary schools and backed the government’s efforts to counter extremism.
But he stressed the importance of differentiating between the promotion of violent extremism and social conservatism and of avoiding the risk of alienating or stigmatising the Muslim community.
Inspections into such institutions should be triggered only when there were substantial grounds, he said, and not by “vexatious complaints… on the basis of anti-Muslim hatred.”
He said that there were “no concerns about extremism being taught in Jewish supplementary schools or in Jewish youth groups and we do not believe that there is a demonstrated need to include Jewish supplementary or youth provision in any new inspection process.”.
In its submission to the DFE, the Charedi charity Interlink opposed a blanket registration for clubs, youth groups and other supplementary institutions as “costly and disproportionate”.
It called for a more “targeted” approach, where inspections would take place only when triggered by concerns about teaching that “instigates hate…or incites violence” or when children’s welfare was at risk.
Interlink welcomed the government’s determination to take action against “the promotion of extremist ideology”.
But it stressed that “there is no track record at all of any alumni of yeshivas, seminaries and other Orthodox
Jewish out-of-school settings presenting with any extremist activity. Levels of anti-social behaviour are almost non-existent.”
It said the community’s institutions “inculcate strong civic and inter-personal responsibilities and develop moral sensitivities about a sense of right and wrong.”
But the Charedi charity voiced concern about the proposed further intervention of the state in civil institutions. In particular, it was worried that social conservatism and traditional faith teachings could be interpreted as extremist.
It pointed to the problems faced by registered Orthodox schools from the way the government’s requirement to teach British values has been interpreted in some cases.
“Matters such as teaching about the unique role and sanctity of traditional marriage and the nuclear family has already been cast as extremist rather than socially conservative,” Interlink said.
“As a community, we are deeply troubled by existing guidance to local authorities to withdraw funding from early years settings that teach Intelligent Design and the Biblical account of creation, and by implication that such teaching is anti-science and constitutes extremist indoctrination.”
Nava Kestenbaum, director of the Interlink Foundation’s North-West England branch and co-author of its response to the DFE consultation, told the JC: “I am not aware of any Orthodox Jewish schools or yeshivas that use corporal punishment, nor would it be condoned.
"Interlink has worked extensively with these settings, including supporting many institutions to develop their safeguarding policies and audit their practices, and I have never come across any evidence of corporal punishment.
"One of the advantages enjoyed by yeshiva students is that they are much safer from physical violence than their peers in wider society because inter-student violence and bullying is almost non-existent. The culture in which students are immersed is one of mutual care, responsibility for others and kindness.”
Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, one of the senior educational figures in the community and chairman of the external affairs of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregation, said “Every school has a child protection officer. No school or cheder of any sort has a policy of corporal punishment. If there were an allegation, it would be dealt with very seriously.”