Faith schools don’t have rights, children do

Yesterday a state faith school in London called Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School was failed by Ofsted, following (though not entirely because of) an exposé by Humanists UK revealing that it had been redacting and censoring its textbooks to remove mentions of same-sex relationships, women’s rights, and various other aspects of modern society. The Ofsted report, which everyone ought to read, has provoked cries of a ‘secularist plot’, and not for the first time. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s be clear about what the school was actually found to be doing. Ofsted found that school leaders: redact texts to remove references or images of men and women socialising together, detail on the persecution of LGBT people during the Holocaust, and images of women that show any bare skin on ankles, wrists, or necks; limit career advice in order to ‘deliberately [my emphasis] restrict the options available to pupils’ when they leave school; provide a ‘narrow curriculum’, focussing ‘narrowly on their own faith’, which fails to ‘prepare pupils adequately for life in modern Britain’; fail to fulfil their ‘statutory duty to provide sex and relationships education’; and ‘deliberately restrict pupils’ access to advice and guidance about how to keep safe in the world, including the redaction of helpline numbers from books.’

No doubt everyone will have their own views about which of these is worse, but surely we can agree that they all detract from the core purpose of a school – namely, to educate its pupils, promote their individual development and wellbeing, and ensure that when they leave the school gates, they are better equipped to make their way through life than when they went in.

On these grounds, Ofsted’s criticism of the school is entirely warranted. So why has the reaction been characterised more by conspiracy theory than concern for the children?

The answer is simple. Those who criticise the narrow, doctrinaire education provided by schools like Yesodey Hatorah do so because they believe that children have rights, and that these rights are inviolable regardless of where children are from or which religious community they were born into. Those who criticise Ofsted believe that religions have rights, and that it is reasonable to relegate the rights of individuals (children or otherwise) in order to accommodate them.

This difference of perspective is at the heart of the ongoing debate about the place of faith schools in society.

If you’re in the former camp, failing to teach children a broad, balanced curriculum, or teaching that men and women have defined and limited roles in society, are gross violations of the rights of individuals to freedom, choice, and dignity. If you’re in the latter camp, preventing a faith school from providing education in this way is a gross violation of the community’s rights, irrespective of what harm might be caused to the diverse set of individuals within it.

The problem is that if religions were to have rights at all (and they don’t – only people do), they certainly wouldn’t have the right to ride roughshod over the rights of their members – and, even more certainly, not the rights of their children. Make no mistake, there are girls and boys, mothers and fathers, LGBT people, and non-believers in these religious communities who do not share the views of their ‘leaders’, but whose ability to speak out, let alone leave, is almost entirely restricted. (It’s worth remembering at this point that Humanists UK was passed copies of this particular school’s redacted books by concerned members of the community who desperately want change, and that is what led to the Ofsted inspection.)

No one should expect the Government to simply sit back and allow this to continue, least of all in the schools that it funds. Fortunately it hasn’t been, and for those hoping that the proper scrutiny of faith schools will soon return to the low-water mark of recent decades, here is what the Government had to say in its Integrated Communities Strategy earlier this year:

‘We believe in a society based on shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities in which we respect and promote equal rights, particularly for those in isolated and segregated communities whose voices are too seldom heard. The government will always protect people’s legitimate rights – for example, to free speech, to hold traditional views and to practise their religion within the law – but we will not shy away from challenging cultures and practices that are harmful to individuals or restrict their rights and hold them back from making the most of the opportunities of living in modern Britain.’

There is no ‘secularist plot’ – not that ‘secularist’ is in any way a dirty word – only an emerging consensus that the rights of children trump the interests of religion every time.

Schools must support all their pupils, whether they’re LGBT or not

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.

FSA staff

A day in my life at an illegal ultra Orthodox school in London

“I was hit almost daily, oftentime leaving marks and bruises for days to come.”

My name is Izzy and I would like to share with you the story of my childhood.

Just like you – or perhaps unlike you – I was born to two loving parents whose greatest wish in life was that I and my siblings grow to become our best selves and have the best opportunities in life. But unlike you, that “life” was not meant to be during our lifetime.

You see, I grew up in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in East London – a community ruled by a dictator. That dictator – aka God – had a plan. A very specific and well-calculated one. The details and minutiae of the plan were very intricate and complex, but the general idea was very simple: God has a book that he wants you to follow. You either follow the book and secure yourself an eternity of bliss in heaven, or you disobey it and you are sent to hell.

Now, this may sound like an easy enough task, but the book was no mere book of instructions. It was actually an extremely complex document with many layers of understanding and interpretation and in order to avoid the hellfires one had to be on constant guard to ensure that their every action, speech and thought is to the absolute godly standard. Even a tiny deviation from the rules – which covered every second of one’s day – would be cause of great concern as to the consequences of those actions.

“Contact with outsiders, we were told, would contaminate our pure souls and so we must isolate ourselves”

In such an environment the best possible upbringing that one can have is one that brings them up to be obedient and submissive subjects to God, who know exactly what they are to do and who follow all the rules to perfection. Good grades, employability, character development, self actualisation, physical and emotional well being, were therefore of minor and secondary concern for our educators and schools. What was important is that we are well versed in the religious texts and that we have the correct godly conduct – which extended to far more than being an upright and moral citizen.

I thus spent all of my childhood in a run-down school building, studying religious texts from morning to evening. Studying secular studies would be an absolute waste of time, as being knowledgeable about the world was not in God’s instruction manual. Not only did we not study any secular subjects, but we were also completely ignorant of them, believing that everything that one can possibly know is contained in God’s Book of Books. Instead of science, we had the ancient writings of the Talmud to enlighten us with the most “up to date facts” about the universe, such as the universe’s geocentricity, the various kinds of demons around and how to protect oneself from them and young earth creationism.

The language of instruction in school – the only language that most of the kids and teachers could speak – was Yiddish. The language barrier was a deliberate implementation by community leaders with the unashamed goal of limiting contact between community members and outsiders. Contact with outsiders, we were told, would contaminate our pure souls and so we must isolate ourselves as to not get influenced by their filth and stupidity.

In-keeping with Biblical methods of child education, corporal punishment was the preferred choice of disciplining for teachers and educators in my community. Personally, being a particularly non-conforming child, I was hit almost daily, oftentime leaving marks and bruises for days to come. Modern pedagogical methods and psychology were frowned upon in my community and special educational needs went unacknowledged.

“Most boys finish school without being able to speak their country’s language or do little more than basic arithmetic.”

I can go on and on recounting one horror story of my childhood after another, but I want to come on to tell you what my concerns are now regarding the thousands of my former co-religionist kids still remaining in the community and still being brought up in their education system.

Spiritual captivity: Education is about giving kids information and guiding them so that when they grow up and become adults they can make choices of their own. The kids in Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities are shown only one possible way of life and are told that all who deviate from that go to hell. This keeps the kids in spiritual captivity and deprives them from any other lifestyle they may have wanted to live.

Deprived education: Kids in my former community are not given anything that could be called an adequate education even by the most minimum standards. Most boys finish school without being able to speak their country’s language or do little more than basic arithmetic. This means that when they grow up they find it extremely difficult to do tasks as simple as going to the doctor’s or the bank. When they eventually need to support a family, they find themselves without the basic tools for supporting themselves and many of them resort to a life of poverty, dependency and income through dubious means.

Anti acculturation: The community has a very negative attitudes to outsiders and to alternative cultures and lifestyles. Kids in the community are brought up with hostility towards, and suspicion of, people beyond their virtual ghetto walls. Far from promoting pluralism, respectful disagreement and tolerance, these schools teach kids a single and absolute lifestyle to the exclusion of all others. Kids are taught racist and sexist ideas and grow to hate other religions, sexual identities and alternative lifestyles.

Child safety and development: Being so secretive and so scarcely regulated, kids learning in these schools are under constant risk of maltreatment and underdevelopment. Corporal punishment is the norm and kids are potentially vulnerable to other forms of abuse as well. An extremely narrow curriculum fails to stimulate the kids and does not allow them to develop healthily into adulthood. Psychological problems and behavioural issues are disproportionately high amongst charedi adolescents, being a direct result of an education system that is monotonous and all text based.

As an ancient Talmudic saying goes, “the chained cannot free himself from the house of bondage”. It is therefore the moral responsibility of those were more fortunate than these kids and have had a good education, to do all that we can to make sure that the less privileged get what they deserve. We cannot idly stand by whilst just around the corner basic education – something that we take for granted – is denied from thousands of our fellow human beings.  

Izzy Posen

This testimony was first told to Humanists UK, which leads the national campaign for action against unregistered religious schools. Humanists UK works closely with former pupils of such settings, like Izzy, as well as current members of extreme religious communities to highlight their experiences and provide valuable evidence to the authorities.