Commenting on the Government’s revised Independent School Standards, currently out for consultation, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) recently made the suggestion that Orthodox Jewish schools that do not want to teach about same-sex relationships ought to be accommodated. A spokesperson said:
‘Our view is that a reasonable compromise is to ensure strict school policies which ensure that, at a minimum, there will be zero tolerance for homophobic bullying, and that Jewish LGBT children in these socially conservative schools should be referred to spaces where they will be properly supported and affirmed outside of schools, such as KeshetUK or the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group.’
There is nothing reasonable about this. Either the BoD is ignorant to the needs and challenges of LGBT children and young people, or it doesn’t care sufficiently about their wellbeing. Here’s why.
First of all, how is it possible to target homophobic bullying specifically if the schools in question are refusing to even acknowledge the existence of LGBT people? In order to address homophobic bullying properly, pupils must be told, at the very least, that LGBT people exist and deserve respect. The schools that the BoD are defending have expressed their unwillingness even to do that. (To pre-empt the apologists and sticklers, no, it obviously isn’t sufficient to simply teach that everyone deserves respect.)
Secondly, in what circumstances would an LGBT pupil at a school like this feel comfortable coming out to a teacher? The whole topic of same-sex relationships, let alone gender identity, is off-limits in these schools, as well as in the communities they serve. This has been made clear not only by the schools themselves, but also by the rabbis who control them and, devastatingly, by the national organisation that claims to represent British Jewry as a whole (i.e. the BoD).
Does the BoD really think it’s that easy for a child to come out in an environment like this? Perhaps it has forgotten the ongoing tragedy of the transgender mother who has been entirely ostracised from her Charedi community and has been denied access to her children on the grounds that they might be ostracised too, were they to have even the most limited contact with her.
No, the idea that ‘Jewish LGBT children in these socially conservative schools’ would come out in order to be ‘referred to spaces where they will be properly supported’ is either naive or disingenuous. Indeed, writing in the Jewish Chronicle this week, Simon Rocker explained that even adopting this token approach ‘would be a big step for some schools’.
None of this is to mention the most frightening implication of the Board’s suggestion – that schools should be free to abdicate their responsibility to promote the wellbeing and development of their pupils. This is at odds with the principles and purpose on which all schools ought to be founded, and those who take this view should rightly face questions about the appropriateness of their involvement in children’s education.
All children, LGBT or otherwise, deserve to be ‘properly supported and affirmed’ at their schools. This, after all, is where they spend the majority of their waking, not to mention formative, hours. It is unbelievable that anyone could argue that forcing children to suppress their identity and live a lie, but only during school hours, represents a ‘reasonable compromise’. It is equally unbelievable that anyone could fail to recognise the psychological and emotional impact that this scenario is likely to have on the children involved.
We repeat. Either the BoD is ignorant to the needs and challenges of LGBT children and young people, or it doesn’t care sufficiently about their wellbeing. Whichever it is, it needs to change.