My life in a Charedi school: ‘Physical punishment was commonplace and the atmosphere was one of perpetual fear’

“this was a school (and there are many like it), which crippled its students by denying them the education which they had a right to receive”

Glasses-and-Torah-Jewish-schools1-1068x801The primary school I attended didn’t have any regular classrooms or playgrounds. None of the teachers had any form of training, and most of them were unable to speak English properly. Physical punishment was commonplace and the atmosphere was one of perpetual fear. Religious studies were the core focus, and any form of dissent, even something as slight as not concentrating during daily prayers, was harshly penalized. You may by now be assuming that I was educated many decades ago, or under some fundamentalist regime. But this was in London in the 21st century, and my school was far from unique.

This was a Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish boys school; one of many similar institutions in the area. I was sent there in good faith (pun not intended) by my religious, but by no means extremist parents, who wanted their son to gain a Jewish education alongside a secular one, and to do so within an acceptable distance from home. What they were unaware of was that behind closed doors this institution was run in manner more akin to Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall than a modern school under Tony Blair’s government.

I emerged relatively unscathed from this experience (I was naturally compliant), but I know of several others who were not as fortunate. Contemporaries of mine suffered extreme physical abuse at the hands of some of the teaching staff, with one boy getting his finger broken for speaking out of turn, and consequently requiring medical care. Others suffered severe beatings, and some even had soap or chalk put in their mouths for uttering so-called profanities.

Yet, horrendous as these incidents were, the school’s real crime was providing its pupils with an abysmally poor education. I was lucky enough to supplement my inadequate lessons by devouring our home library and by learning from my parents, both of whom had received a regular education. Had I not been able to do this, my literacy and numeracy skills would be of a debilitating standard. The school’s mission was to prepare its pupils for a life of religious study – all other considerations were ignored. Conversation and teaching took place exclusively in Yiddish. Having an understanding of the English language may, God-forbid, lure our young minds to secular literature. We never felt the need for any secular education. The “supposedly” great minds of secular scientists believed we came from monkeys, so we were told, and it took them thousands of years to discover that objects fall to the ground; giving it the fancy name of “Gravity”. This, of course, was used as evidence of the stupidity of secular education. We all knew that babies came from human mothers, and any Charedi child could tell you that objects fell to the ground.

You may be wondering why Ofsted did nothing to prevent this. Well for a start, the inspections were scheduled well in advance, giving the school enough time to clean up its act, hire a fake teacher and instruct the pupils on how to respond if questioned. Students were warned to be wary of giving the school a bad name, as this would in turn desecrate God’s name. Not to mention the physical beating that would follow the day after the inspectors left. Additionally, the inspectors were often practising ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves, and thus believed that ancient scriptures provided a more solid form of education to prepare the pupils for the afterlife.

Ultimately, even if the school had been given a damning report, Ofsted has little will to enact any changes. Any form of improvement simply meant compiling an additional policy and procedure file, locked away to collect dusk and mould with all the other non-Jewish material.

I don’t wish to paint a wholly condemnatory portrait, as there were some good teachers in the mix, and the standard of religious education was as high as you might expect. But this was a school (and there are many like it), which crippled its students by denying them the education which they had a right to receive and preventing them from flourishing into active members of society.


“Accelerated” “Christian” “Education”

“other schools saw us as targets for abuse as we walked to and from school, conveniently proving the evilness of these other schools, and further isolating us from the outside world”

Accelerated_Christian_Education logoAccelerated Christian Education, normally known as ACE, is a Christian Fundamentalist system of learning and curriculum established in 1970 by Dr Donald R Howard in Tennessee. ACE describes its curriculum as “back-to-basics education … individualized to meet a student’s specific learning needs and capabilities … incorporating Scripture, Godly character building, and wisdom principles.” ACE offers the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) to successful students, although some schools in the UK also offer GCSE and A-Level qualifications.

There are currently around thirty ACE schools in the Britain, and an unknown number of parents use it as a home-schooling curriculum. Worldwide, there are more six thousand ACE schools in more than 140 countries. Until the mid-nineties, I attended a school in the Home Counties which has since closed.

So, what is Accelerated Christian Education? As a question it’s both very easy to answer and very difficult: easy because facts and figures can describe it to anyone, but difficult because it’s difficult to convey the impact of the education, particularly to people for who the concepts are so alien.

Religion pervades the ACE environment. Our school was typical: run as a private school by the church, allowing them to be exclusive by only accepting the children of church members.

The day started with morning devotions or assembly, which included recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag, a short homily or a longer-form lecture/sermon based on a Bible passage, prayer, collective recitation of a passage of Scripture, and the singing of hymns and worship songs.

Prayer was then further incorporated into the day in the form of grace at lunch, at the end of the day, and by the promotion of prayer before studying or taking a test.

We were required to memorise and recite a passage of Scripture each month, (for example, 1 Corinthians 13, or Psalm 121, which was a requirement for accession to Honour Roll (an elite group of students who got extra privileges) with failure to be able to recite the passage resulting in the student being required to stay behind after school for “Remedial Scripture” during which they are required to memorise the new month’s passage, typically through verbal or written repetition.

Needless to say, religious doctrines and beliefs were also incorporated into the school rules and discipline system, which were codified into a handbook, of which every student had a copy. For example, beliefs around modesty were key to the girl’s dress code (including the requirement that they wear uniform underwear, which would be inspected), and ideas of Christian sexual morality were enforced through the gross misconduct rules.

This strict disciplinary approach was central to the way in which we were taught, too. The emphasis was very much on self-teaching and rote learning, delivered through workbooks known as Packets of Accelerated Christian Learning (PACEs), and classrooms consisted of individual cubicles known as ‘offices’, designed to prevent pupils from interacting with one another and to promote silence and intense, completely unsustainable concentration at all times. Even when calling over members of staff (to get permission to complete a test, or mark work, or in the event that a student needed academic assistance), we had to place a small flag on a shelf on top of their office.

It’s important to know, too, that our school of around sixty students was exclusively made up of children of members of the church, who were overwhelmingly white, exclusively cisgender and heterosexual, and male-dominated. Within that context, the content of PACEs was fairly predictable.

The educational comic strips feature a number of black and minority ethnic (BAME) characters, each group of whom occupy separate schools and churches. As a result, BAME characters rarely interact with white characters, and the majority of the strips focus on the white church and school. In addition, even when teaching about different cultures in social studies, the cultures are portrayed as unsophisticated, ungodly and even demonic, sometimes to the level of the idea of the noble savage.

PACEs promote women’s subservience to the male head of the household, with rigidly defined gender roles and jobs. Women are expected to undertake housework, cooking and, if they have a career, caring professions, whilst men are expected to be career-focussed, to undertake DIY tasks and to lead the household. There is a strict code of appearance for women which is promoted in PACEs (the men’s code is restricted to hair style and requirement to wear “men’s” clothing); this code is reinforced within the school environment, with girls and women required to wear skirts and/or dresses.

PACEs state that homosexuality is a perversion of God’s plan, and that HIV can be avoided by adhering to a rigid moral code. This was also reflected in school rules, in which identifying as gay can typically result in (at best) punishment and (at worst) expulsion and/or public shaming and prayer.

ACE is an exclusively Christian system, and PACEs describe people of other faiths as worshipping demons or false gods. In addition, atheists are described as rebelling against God and seeking to undermine God’s plan for the world.

PACEs espouse political views which align themselves with right-wing conservative values, and explicitly criticise anything which is seen as left-wing or socialistic, including systems of social welfare.

Disabled characters are all-but invisible in PACEs, and when they are mentioned it tends to be in the context of the results of sin (for example, when one character injures another in a road traffic incident). The training given to Supervisors and Monitors on the subject of learning disabilities is limited at best, and promotes un-evidenced, anti-scientific and counter-productive policies which may cause harm to students.

Lastly, and there’s plenty more I could say, ACE schools are isolationist to their core. First, the church considered themselves to be the only true Christians in the area, which is why members of other churches were excluded from attendance at the school. Second, the school didn’t participate in intermural activities, and, since the students were all children of members of the same church, all socialisation was with the same limited group of young people, whether at school, youth group, Sunday school or church.

The isolation was further enhanced by the uniform, which was markedly different to that worn by pupils at all other schools in the area. This meant that the other schools saw us as targets for abuse as we walked to and from school, conveniently proving the evilness of other schools, and further isolating us from the outside world.


Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was left totally unprepared for the real world

“The disregard for education that is espoused by JW doctrines encourages parents to willingly overlook the importance of teaching and socialising their children”

watchtowerSchool was very confusing for me. I was not allowed to develop friendships with my classmates outside of school-time and going on to further education was discouraged. For these reasons, I was glad to be removed from school at age 14 in order to receive elective home education. It meant that I could avoid the confusing situation that was “school” and concentrate on matters of greater importance, which, at that time, meant preaching the good news, house-to-house, with fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). My education stopped there, pretty much. I remember receiving one solitary visit from the Local Education Authority Officer and took only 1 GCSE (Maths), which I paid for myself.

Not all children of JWs have the same experience when it comes to schooling. Some parents are stricter than others. However, in the area where I grew up, there were several other children in the same situation as me: home-schooled, with no qualifications. It was not uncommon, in fact, for us to be out knocking on people’s doors on a weekday, when most people our age were in school. That such a situation could occur is an indictment, not only against the views of JWs but also against society. And yet, it’s also hard to know how to feel, or what to do, about it. I think back to my school-days and still feel confused.

I remember once, aged around 7 years old, going home with a school-friend to play (this school-friend was not a JW). After being there for 20 minutes or so, there was a knock at the door… my mother had come to take me away. Immediately after leaving the school-friend’s house, I got a telling off – a telling off which I didn’t understand then and which I still don’t now. However nice this boy may seem, I was told, he was not a JW and therefore not a good influence. As time went on, I learned to conform to expectations, taking JW literature into school and sharing it with my classmates, hoping that they would become JWs too. I did not participate in morning assemblies as a prayer was given in those assemblies. Likewise, I did not engage with Christmas or Easter celebrations, or indeed any sort of religious celebration. I did not join in with extra-curricular activities. I think, all in all, it constituted a failure to be socialised in a healthy way. As mentioned earlier, I was glad to be out of the situation when, at aged 14, I was removed from the school system entirely.

I don’t doubt that my parents thought they had my best interests at heart throughout all of this but the sad fact is that their whole world was about serving God and was not based in reality. Both of my parents had no experience of further education and this played a role. But, more than this, the disregard for education that is espoused by JW doctrines encourages parents to willingly overlook the importance of teaching and socialising their children according to normative standards. When I did finally decide to cease being a JW (aged 18), I was left totally unprepared for the real world. I was cut off from the JW community and my choices were severely limited due to my having never finished school. To mould a child in such a way robs that child of their full potential. Drifting around in my late-teens and early-20s, I felt like there was no hope for me.

My parents, the JW community and, to a lesser extent, society in general allowed what happened to me to happen. As a child—an indoctrinated child, at that—I didn’t have the capacity to take responsibility for myself. JWs, and other faiths too, need to ensure they provide children with the best start possible by ensuring that they have opportunities to work with, regardless of what faith they may choose further down the line.

Oliver J. Smith