The Charedi community, sometimes also known as the Ultra Orthodox Jewish or Hassidic community, practices strict observation of Jewish law and doctrine. The education in the 35 or so Charedi schools is focussed almost entirely on study of the Torah and Talmud, with very little education in what are referred to as ‘secular’ subjects such as English or Maths and almost no opportunity to experience or engage with wider society. The majority of Charedi schools in the UK are private, though there are a small number of state-funded schools, and, despite recent efforts to clamp down on the problem, there are also a significant number of illegal, unregistered schools which espouse a highly conservative and isolationist ideology, particularly catering for boys over 13 (who have had their bar mitzvah). Charedi schools are frequently creationist, homophobic, and forbid no social media, and have strict dress codes.
Hackney Council’s Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Commission is carrying out an inquiry into illegal, unregistered schools in the Borough. As has been well-documented on this website, as well as by the British Humanist Association (BHA), a significant number of children from the strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish community are ‘missing’ from the school system, and are attending illegal ‘faith’ schools in which they are subjected to indoctrination, educational neglect, and abuse. Hackney are now asking for former or current pupils, parents, or teachers of these schools, or anyone with information about them, to come forward and submit their experiences. This can be done entirely anonymously through the following link: https://consultation.hackney.gov.uk/overview-and-scrutiny/unregistered-education/.
The following text appears on Hackney’s consultation page:
And the following screen-grab provides an indication of what information the questionnaire asks for:
Please do share the link to the questionnaire with anyone who you think can contribute to the consultation. If you are comfortable with your response or parts of your response being made public, please forward them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing.”
There are a great many injustices embedded in the faith school sector of our education system. And as the Government moves to drastically increase the extent of religious discrimination and segregation in our schools, these injustices are only becoming further entrenched.
But which injustice is the worst? In a system that allows schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents’ religious or non-religious beliefs, forces countless parents to lie about their religion just to get their children into a local school, and requires children to compulsorily worship a god they likely don’t believe in, it can be hard to pick.
In truth, however, the answer is ‘none of the above’. The greatest injustice present in our system relates to the thousands of children that we know are absent from it, and the total lack of any meaningful action to address this.
The problem of illegal religious schools in this country is one that has received increasing attention in recent years. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been the driving force behind much of this, working with former pupils of these schools, and with government officials and journalists from the print and broadcast media, to ensure that the issue never falls too far from the top of the agenda. Not before time, the relevant authorities have started to take an interest too.
Oftsed’s outgoing Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has now written to the Education Secretary four times to outline his findings and concerns over illegal religious schools, and for the first time Ofsted have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating these schools. Local authorities like Hackney and Birmingham are no longer turning a blind-eye to these issues, or passing the buck when challenged on their inaction. Instead, they are carrying out their own investigations into illegal religious schools, and through the Local Government Association asking Government for more powers to intervene where they suspect children are not receiving the mainstream education they are entitled to. Even the Department for Education (DfE) has started taking some responsibility, introducing provisions to prosecute the proprietors of illegal religious schools and to clamp down on supplementary religious schools that may also be operating illegally.
But for all the increased attention and concern, the perception remains that this is a problem that’s still shrouded in secrecy, hard to identify, hidden from the eyes of the authorities and the arm of the law. This perception is not correct. This is a problem well known to us.
Last week the Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a report entitled ‘The Rise and Rise of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom’. Here is a graph from the report showing strictly orthodox boys by age in secondary schools in Stamford Hill, Manchester, and Gateshead (the three areas in England with the largest Charedi communities):
The drop off in attendance at age 13, represented by the blue bars on the graph, is clear to see. As the report notes:
‘An estimated 1,400 strictly Orthodox children aged 11-15 years are being educated in Jewish schools or yeshivot which are not included in the Department for Education’s school census… Indeed, about half of strictly Orthodox boys aged 11-15 years do not appear in the strictly Orthodox school system. The issue is not as extreme, but still exists, at the younger ages within this range: about one-third of the boys aged 11-13 are not found in the data on strictly Orthodox schools.’
This, I hope you’ll agree, is shocking. But when the report was published last week, the only headlines it received related to the rise in the number of Jewish children attending faith schools. None of the articles covering the report mentioned the missing children or the schools not included in the DfE’s census.
There’s more where this comes from too. The graphs below are from an Independent article earlier this year, showing the number of Jewish children in full time education in Hackney according to the Department for Education’s school census. Hackney is thought to be home to as many as 30 unregistered Charedi schools:
Again, you can see the problem here immediately. At the age of around 12/13, Jewish boys all but disappear from full time education.
Now you might ask how we know that when they disappear, they disappear into illegal religious schools. The answer is simple. No one has ever made any attempt to disguise this fact. Take as an example a report from 2007 produced by the Board of Deputies of British Jews:
“It can also be observed from Table 1 that the attendance figures for boys from Years 8 through 11 show a dramatic fall-off to almost zero. This is due to boys leaving these schools around the age of bar mitzvah in order to attend yeshivot (seminaries for young, unmarried men).”
This is a public report, drawing on official data from the Department for Education, which openly and uncritically acknowledges that when boys in the strictly Orthodox community reach their early teens it is normal for them to start attending illegal, unregistered schools and for the entirety of their education from there on in to be focused exclusively on the study of scripture. And before you begin to wonder what is wrong with this – deeply religious schools serving deeply religious communities – take some time to read about what these places are like from the former pupils who have shared their experiences on this site.
We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing. That has to change.
“No girls attending our schools are allowed to study and get a degree. It is dangerous.”
Yesterday the Independent published a document, written in Yiddish, which detailed the decree of the prominent strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish sect Satmar. The decree, aimed at the independent schools it operates in both the UK and around the world, reportedly says this:
“It has lately become the new trend that girls and married women are pursuing degrees in special education. Some attend classes and others online. And so we’d like to let their parents know that it is against the Torah.
“We will be very strict about this. No girls attending our school are allowed to study and get a degree. It is dangerous. Girls who will not abide will be forced to leave our school. Also, we will not give any jobs or teaching position in the school to girls who’ve been to college or have a degree.
“We have to keep our school safe and we can’t allow any secular influences in our holy environment. It is against the base upon which our Mosed was built.”
As shocking as this is, it’s nothing new.
Just a few months ago a judge upheld Ofsted’s decision to ban a Charedi school in Stamford Hill from admitting new pupils because it was, among other things, ‘fail[ing] to encourage respect for women and girls’ and teaching pupils ‘that women showing bare arms and legs are impure’. Last year, too, two schools in London reportedly wrote to parents to say that ‘no child will be allowed to learn in our school’ if they were driven in by their mothers, as this went ‘against the laws of modesty within our society’. The schools were forced to drop the ban after the Equality and Human Rights Commission deemed it ‘unlawful’.
In April, a Jewish private school was failed by Ofsted because ‘pupils demonstrated stereotypical views on the roles of men and women, with men “going to work” and women “cooking and cleaning”’. And last year the Rabia Girls’ and Boys’ School in Luton was criticised by inspectors for, among other things, teaching a design and technology syllabus which ‘limits girls to activities on knitting and sewing’.
We could go on, believe me, and those are just the schools we know about. As has been well-publicised, not least on this site, the existence of illegal, unregistered Charedi schools has been an open and shamefully unaddressed secret for years.
But this is by no means a problem specific to Jewish schools, or indeed to any other kind of ‘faith’ school. And that’s the problem. For too long religion has been allowed to range free in our schools and run roughshod over the education of our children. As long as this is the case, we’ll be forced to come on here time and time again to highlight yet more tragic and heartbreakingly avoidable failings in UK schools.
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