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.

Anti-LGBT views should be no more acceptable in schools than racist views are

Anti-LGBT views should be no more acceptable in schools than racist views are. However, some faith schools and religious leaders are continuing to publically air anti-LGBT views, particularly with regard to Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). The lack of criticism they are receiving and the willingness shown by the Government to cooperate with them is unacceptable.   

Earlier this month, Charedi leaders refused to allow the teaching of LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education in schools, telling Lord Theodore Agnew, Minister of State at the Department for Education, that there would be ‘no compromise’. One member of the Orthodox Union of Hebrew Congregations (UOHC), whose organisation attended the meeting, said the requirement to teach pupils about same-sex relationships was ‘a form of religious discrimination’.

This begs the question, why is it still acceptable in 2018 for religious leaders to openly get away with refusing to accept the existence of LGBT people and to educate their pupils about them? Or worse still, why are they given the opportunity to air their hateful views to a Government minister?

It’s hard to imagine anyone accommodating this kind of intolerance if the issue under discussion was race. Clearly it would not be considered acceptable for religious leaders to refuse to promote racial equality because it ‘could not be accommodated within any orthodox educational framework’ and was ‘inconsistent with freedom of educational choice’, which is how they labelled the prospect of teaching LGBT-inclusive RSE.

Far from condemning their views, Lord Agnew apparently promised to facilitate a meeting between the Charedi leaders and Ofsted and, according to those attending, ‘appeared very sympathetic to the concerns expressed’, even agreeing ‘that it made no sense to expect Orthodox schools to teach concepts totally beyond the comprehension of children raised in a protective religious environment’.

This meeting makes a mockery of the attempts that have been made by the Government and Ofsted to crack down on faith schools that refuse to teach LGBT perspectives. In June, Vishnitz Girls School failed an Ofsted inspection for neglecting to educate its pupils on sexual orientation or any other LGBT related issues. And yet, months later, this kind of discrimination is seemingly acceptable enough to warrant an Education minister’s sympathy and the chance for a meeting with Ofsted.  

It’s hard to imagine anyone accommodating this kind of intolerance if the issue under discussion was race.

The Charedi leaders’ stance on LGBT-inclusive teaching is far from unique. Discriminatory public statements by faith schools concerning LGBT relationships such as this one, found until recently on the website of a state-funded Catholic school, Bishop Challoner Catholic school in Basingstoke, have no place in modern society but are all too common. It stated that,  

‘a homosexual partnership and a heterosexual marriage can never be equated. This is the case in English law. The Church seeks to affirm the homosexual as a person, but cannot approve of homosexual genital acts.’

That this could be the open policy of a school where around 800 UK pupils are educated, some of them likely to be LGBT, is shocking. Had the statement concerned race and suggested that black or interracial partnerships were unequal to marriage between white people then it’s not hard to imagine the school might have been shut down. At the very least, its teaching would be investigated by the DfE. As it was, the school was allowed to claim the policy was ‘an administrative error’. This excuse was not questioned by the Hampshire County Council whose statement that ‘the school has responded appropriately and confirmed that the policy referred to was out of date. The county council has no further comment to make’, fails to address the vile content of the policy, the number of years that it was allowed to remain on the school’s website, and the strong possibility that it reflects the teaching at that school. The DfE, rather than take action, simply refused to comment on the case.    

Faith based discrimination against LGBT people is, of course, sadly a broader issue which extends outside of faith schools. Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, remained as leader for nearly two years until his resignation in June despite being clearly uncomfortable about the idea of non-heterosexual relationships. His recent statement of regret that he had said gay sex was not sinful was criticised to an extent, but one can only imagine the uproar had the question been focused on interracial relationships, for instance. Equally, his narrative of continual persecution on the basis of his Christian beliefs, the focus of his resignation speech, would not be considered acceptable if he had been lamenting the criticism he had received for holding racist views.

In this day and age, in a country whose most important values are meant to be respect and mutual understanding, it is hard to believe that religious leaders and faith schools can continue to openly discriminate and teach hateful values to their pupils. And yet, the evidence that they can is all too clear. Whatever the tenets of their faith and their own personal beliefs, those who provide relationships and sex education should ensure that it is inclusive for all gender identities and sexualities, just as all schools in the UK are expected to be inclusive of all races and ethnicities.

No form of discrimination in education should be considered more acceptable than any other.  


FSA staff

Doublethink: the Catholic Education Service, the Government, and the 50% cap

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…

This is the definition of ‘doublethink’ in George Orwell’s 1984, the state of mind required to accept both the reforms introduced by the ‘Party’ and the ‘newspeak’ it uses to justify them.

The appeal of any dystopian fiction lies partly in the understanding that whilst the reality it presents may, at first glance, seem very different to our own, it is actually, on closer inspection, not so very different at all. Setting aside for a moment any other parallels that might exist between our world and the world of 1984, it becomes all too clear that ‘doublethink’ is alive and well in both worlds when examining the proposals to end the 50% cap on religious selection by free schools.

‘To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…’

One of the principal justifications for this move is that the 50% cap ‘contravenes canon law’. This claim, perpetuated by the Catholic Education Service (CES) as its principal argument in favour of the cap’s lifting is patently false. So transparently false in fact, that it seems wrong merely to describe the Government as having been misled. Rather, the Government has allowed itself to be misled.

The following, taken from a Humanists UK briefing published late last year, makes that abundantly clear:

a)​ the vast majority of Catholic private schools in England (78 out of 101 according to a recent survey) do not select all their places with reference to religion, whether oversubscribed or not, and many openly celebrate the fact that they do not religiously select at all;

b)​ many Catholic state schools in Scotland do not religiously select their pupils

c)​ around the world allowing state-funded schools (Catholic or otherwise) to religiously discriminate in admissions is extremely rare. A recent OECD survey identified only the UK, Ireland, Israel and Estonia as permitting discrimination of this nature;

d)​ devastatingly, there are already Catholic state schools in England that do not select all their places on religion. For example, St Richard Reynolds Catholic Primary School in Richmond, St Paul’s Academy in Greenwich, and The De La Salle Academy in Liverpool all leave a third of their places open to non-Catholic children.

e)​ the Catholic International Education Office – the umbrella body for over 100 national catholic education organisations around the world, including the CES – stated in an official paper circulated at the Council of Europe in November 2016 that a ‘Catholic school is an inclusive school, founded in intercultural and interreligious dialogue. A non-discriminatory school, open to all, especially the poorest… [It] is anything but a communitarian school. It is open to all. In many European, American, Arab, African or Asian countries, the Catholic school welcomes mainly, or even exclusively, Muslim pupils, Buddhists, animists, or pupils of other religions, even those without religion. It must constantly promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue’.

Both the Government and the CES must now know these truths, and yet they persist with the notion that canon law has been breached.

‘…to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…’

Speaking to the TES in October 2016, CES Director Paul Barber stated that ‘the move back to schools of 100 per cent one faith is dreadful’, adding that ‘to have children of other faiths in our schools’ is ‘a real blessing’. Bizarre, no?

How, you might ask, can the CES claim to be on the side of integration having lobbied to end the only policy in recent years that meaningfully requires schools to promote integration? How can the CES opine with one breath that fully segregated schools are to be avoided, and with the next breath call for a change that would make new fully segregated schools possible? How can the CES claim to welcome children from other faiths, while demanding that the Government gives it permission to turn away such children at the gate? This is doublethink in action.

The doublethink is present throughout the Government, too. Speaking on the steps of No. 10 when announcing this policy, Theresa May stated unequivocally that integration was still her aim, and that on removing the cap the Government would be consulting on ‘a new set of much more effective requirements to ensure that faith schools are properly inclusive and make sure their pupils mix with children of other faiths and backgrounds.’

The Prime Minister must know, of course, that religiously segregated schools are anathema to integration. Just as she must know that the best way to ensure mixing between pupils from different backgrounds is to actually have them mix. In fact, in August 2017 the Department for Education (DfE) helpfully published a report it commissioned into the benefits of mixing within schools. The study, which examined contact between pupils from White-British and Asian-British pupils at secondary schools in Oldham, found that:

  • ‘Attitudes were more positive and, as would be expected, mixing was more frequent in mixed than segregated schools’.
  • ‘Mixed schools do result in more social mixing between ethnic groups over time, and mixing is reliably associated with more positive views of the outgroup.’
  • ‘Attitudes of pupils who mix with other backgrounds were more positive compared to those who remain with their own ethnicities.’

This is a DfE-commissioned report! And while we’re on Government-commissioned reports, let’s not forget the Casey Review on integration. The two-year review concluded that ‘When children being educated in segregated schools are also growing up in an area where all of their neighbours are from the same ethnic and/or faith background, it vastly reduces opportunities for them to mix with others from different backgrounds. It deprives them of the benefits – individually and to society as a whole – that are known to derive from mixing with people from different backgrounds.’

Good. In that case the review must also have concluded that the Government’s plans to allow for more segregation in the education system are wrong-headed and potentially very damaging. No such luck. The review fails to recommend that the Government drop its plans to remove the 50% cap, perhaps reflecting the fact that the review was published by the Home Office, at a time when Theresa May was Home Secretary. Nevermind that this contradicted everything contained within the rest of the report as well as the personal view of its author Dame Louise Casey. Doublethink.

‘…to use logic against logic…’

I did not, above, explain why the CES deem the 50% cap to contravene canon law. Well, simply put the Catholic Church in England and Wales believes that if a Catholic school was to turn away Catholics, that would go against canon law. As Paul Barber says:

‘If we create a new school in an area where there’s a large demand from Catholic parents, and we’re saying from day one, “You can’t come to this school, because you’re Catholic,” the Catholic community would not understand that.’

What Paul Barber is trying to claim here is that what exists now is a quota not a cap. This is dead wrong. As we wrote on this website some months ago ‘The difference is this: after a school has taken its 50 percent of pupils on the basis of faith, it then has to take the second 50 percent “without reference to faith”. But that is not the same as saying that it cannot take any more pupils of that faith. Instead, the second 50 per cent affords everyone who applies equal opportunity to gain access to the school, regardless of their religion or belief.’ In other words, the CES are stating that equal treatment for all = discrimination against Catholics. Again, doublethink.

Unfortunately, this is a fallacy that the Government has also subscribed to, meaning that a) the Government doesn’t understand a policy that it introduced itself and has been implemented for the last seven years, or b) the Government does understand its own policy and is deliberately misrepresenting it in order to justify the reform demanded by the CES. Either way, new logic is being used to undermine the old.

‘…to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…’

As we have seen, the claims made by the CES, and repeated by the Government, are untrue, contradictory, and illogical. But they are also immoral.

The CES is an organisation keen to talk up its contribution. It boasts of its long history of providing public education, and its website proudly states that ‘service to those who are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society has also always been central to the mission of Catholic education’.  

There is no doubt that for many of the teachers and other staff working in Catholic schools throughout England and Wales, this is a mission they carry out sincerely and often thanklessly. But they are let down direly by their superiors.

We have already observed that instead of welcoming the ‘blessing’ of having ‘children of other faiths in our schools’, the CES campaigns at a national level to keep those children out. We also know, from decades of research into the consequences of faith-based admission arrangements, that whenever religious selection is employed, children from poorer families are disproportionately turned away. In other words, the more religiously selective a school, the fewer poorer children it will admit.

The CES is well aware of this effect, as is the Government. And yet, under the guise of ‘mission’ and moral obligation, they persist with their attempt to increase religious selection in the education system. There is nothing moral about it.


All of this, and in far more detail, has been communicated to the Government. Ever since it made the announcement it has been inundated with evidence that entirely undermines its position and it has been overwhelmed by experts who demand a u-turn. For a time, whilst Justine Greening was Education Secretary, it seemed as though the Government was listening. But now, all that has been thrown into fresh doubt.

Towards the end of 1984, Winston asks the following question to himself: ‘what can you do against the lunatic… who gives your arguments fair hearing and then simply persists in the lunacy?’ If the Government presses on with these proposals, we might well ask the same question.

FSA team