New plans by the government to improve community cohesion could increase pressure on Charedi schools which are already struggling to conform to the demands of education authorities.
A Green Paper setting out an “integrated communities strategy” promises that the government will act when the education of children is “inadequate to prepare them for life in modern Britain”.
The proposals, which will go out for consultation, are aimed at reducing segregation, improving opportunities for women to work and increasing proficiency in English, particularly among new immigrants. The inspection service Ofsted, the document says, will review how much importance schools give to the teaching of “British values” of tolerance and respect for others.
British values have proved problematic for some strictly Orthodox independent schools because guidelines require them to “pay regard” to groups protected under equality law, including those of same-sex orientation and transgender status.
A few weeks ago Education Minister Lord Agnew wrote to Charedi education leaders in Stamford Hill expressing concern at the failure of local Jewish schools to comply with British values requirements or teach English well enough. The Green Paper says the nment is “committed to taking a firmer approach to enforce standards when there is evidence of non-compliance”.
It also proposes to close loopholes, which currently allow some strictly Orthodox yeshivot to operate beyond control of the secular education authorities. Although it does not mention yeshivot as such, it states “we believe that all full-time independent education settings should be registered and regulated, no matter what curriculum they offer.”
While it upholds the right of communities to practise their religion, it sayss that “respect for faith communities will not prevent us vigorously promoting rights to equal treatment; for example, if women and girls are denied their right to education or to participate in decision-making, or when the education of children is inadequate to prepare them for life in modern Britain.”
The policy paper is a response to a report produced for the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government by Dame Louise Casey in 2016. That mentioned concerns that some Jewish children were being taught a woman’s place is in the home.
While supportive of faith schooling, the paper says segregation is increased when children have no opportunity to mix with children from other backgrounds outside school. It pledges to increase support for twinning between schools.
New free schools will be expected to be “inclusive and welcoming of pupils of different backgrounds” and demonstrate efforts to “reflect the social and ethnic make-up” of the local area in recruiting pupils.
On other issues, it says extremism at universities should be robustly challenged and “those who would wish to sow divisions cannot succeed”.
But it rejects the idea of compulsory registration of sharia courts because this would confer legitimacy on them.
Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies, said it had been “in frequent dialogue with the government on the development of the strategy and we look forward to sharing the Jewish community’s experience of how minority communities can preserve our identities while being fully integrated and contributing members of British society.”
Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, chairman of the external affairs committee of the main Charedi umbrella group in London, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, said it was “vital that the drive for greater integration does not compromise the freedom to continue our way of life and that integration policies are not hijacked by anti-religious campaign groups” .
He said, “We are proud British citizens and are intensely grateful for the freedom to worship at our synagogues, to educate our children within our religious framework and to practise our religion without constraint.”
Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of the Jewish Leadership Council’s education division, Partnerships for Jewish School, said the government was “the most supportive of faith schools that Britain has seen”.
But he sounded a note of caution over the government’s wish to address “legitimate worries about the fundamentalisation within certain faith communities”
This prompted, he said, “a minefield of human rights concerns regarding how it should go about restricting the freedoms of the few who abuse them, while defending and protecting the rights to any or no religious practice of the many who deserve them”.
It was essential that any initiatives took into consideration “the rights of our community and indeed other minority communities,” he said.