Three children at JFS have lost their lives to suicide in the past few years. On Facebook, the family of one of the children issued a public plea for JFS to recognise the bullying she experienced. Using the website Everyone’s Invited,survivors of sexual assault shared testimonies of a normalised culture of harassment and violence in JFS’ hallways and lunch queues. The repercussions were swift. Ofsted arrived, children spoke up and the adults listened. The head resigned. Students organised themselves to demand that the school prioritise their mental health – their petition collected more than 2,000 signatures.
I cry for the children whose torment is not spoken. I cry for the statistics we will never have, because the data is inaccessible, because no one will talk. I cry for the Jewish community that discounts an entire section as too hard to reach and somehow less deserving of quality safeguarding. I cry because you presume us to be immune to all the ills from which accountability would protect us, or worse, you don’t care that we are unprotected. For this, I cry.
Lucky, lucky JFS. I know that the JFS parent body will not have been shy in voicing any concerns they had to Ofsted. Your children will be heard. Your children have the privilege of being able to speak freely. You hear the power in their voices. For all your sins, for all the toxicity, for all the deep-seated cultural issues that created the mess you are now dealing with, you listen, and you understand what you need to do to change. You may have lost your way, but you will find it again, because you benefit from leadership that has reacted constructively, instead of defensively. Charedi children are not so lucky. Who even hears what they have to say?
In 2018, when Yesodey Hatorah was downgraded to inadequate for safeguarding, poor governance and a curriculum that did not meet national standards, commentators turned the story into a debate about religious ethos, as if ethos is a ‘get out of jail free’ card allowing religious conservatives to do what they want, regardless of how that might impact women and girls, LGBTQ+ people and people of colour. The likes of Melanie Phillips and Giles Fraser waved away any concerns.
I cry because it seems neither Phillips or Fraser really stopped to think about the risks faced by girls where they are coached to lie and silenced when they try to tell the truth. No one cares that our girls have no voice. I was keen to understand the perspective of the students so I spoke to some Yesodey Hatorah girls about their experience of the Ofsted inspection that led to all the publicity. They told me they were warned not to raise any concerns with the inspectors, and to only speak positively about the school, because Ofsted was waging a war against their Judaism. Another girl told me she suffered from serious mental health issues at Yesodey Hatorah, and although her friend asked the headteacher for help, none was given.No one at school checked in on her or asked if she needed support.
I haven’t singled out Yesodey Hatorah because I believe it is unique in its practices, or the worst example there is of this kind of education, but because what happened there is on the public record. Unlike many Charedi schools, it is a state school where Ofsted and the Department for Education have much more capacity to hold leadership accountable. Even there, they are thwarted at every turn, denigrated and positioned as an enemy of God. Fraser, in his attempt to defend them, said he heard teachers referring to Ofsted as the Gestapo.
No one is worried about being held accountable by anyone they respect, so no one is held accountable at all.