I have been deeply alarmed over recent weeks and months at the increasing hostility emerging between the educational authorities – particularly Ofsted – and our Charedi community.
Many Jewish schools have an excellent relationship with the educational authorities, with a lot of Jewish schools in the Centrist Orthodox and Progressive denominations scoring very highly with Ofsted.
For a long time, various parts of the Charedi school sector were no different. However, over recent months and years, this has changed because of an often aggressive and intransigent approach from the regulator.
Of course, there are some very valid points to what Ofsted is raising and to what the Government is seeking to achieve.
Of all people, Jews know the bitter taste of hatred and discrimination. Promoting good community relations and tackling prejudice is in the interests of the Charedi community as much as anyone. I commend the efforts of the Charedi leaders who already reach out to other groups. We all need to do more of this. As the prophet Jeremiah said, “Seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Hashem for it, for in its peace you too shall find peace.”
Similarly, we need to ensure that we show respect to all people, even if they live or love differently to the majority in our society. By the law of averages, there can be no doubt that there are LGBT children in Charedi schools, and we need to ensure that they too are affirmed and cared for.
Nobody could disagree that the health, safety and security of our children is paramount, as is a good, rounded education that will allow them to thrive in both Jewish and other settings. None of this should be in conflict with any Jewish way of life. Pirkei Avot teaches, “If there is no flour there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah there is no flour”.
On the one hand, no Jewish child should have an education that robs them of the ability to earn a living and consigns them to poverty. On the other hand, just as we are proud of the central role that Gateshead Yeshiva plays in world Jewry, all Jews would be proud to see these schools breed the next generation of great Torah scholars. Many of the Charedi schools have long achieved this balance and all should aspire to reach these high standards.
For this reason, the Department for Education and Ofsted’s adversarial approach is wrong and counterproductive. We need the educational establishment to stop what seems to be a near-ceaseless attack on a way of life that, while different to others, is causing no harm to society and is, in so many ways, a blessing.
What should happen is a proper conversation with all the issues on the table and a workable way forward found that supports the objectives of a harmonious and prosperous society while respecting the ethos of this valued section of our community. One of the protected characteristics covered by the 2010 Equality Act is ‘Religion and Belief’, and our authorities would do well to remember this.
A few days before he was promoted to Home Secretary, my Board of Deputies colleagues organised a visit for the then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to Stamford Hill to visit Charedi community institutions including the Yesodey HaTorah Senior Girls’ School. Very importantly, he told the girls there, “As far as I am concerned, you are modern Britain”.
In recent weeks, the Board of Deputies has met with the Education Secretary Damian Hinds twice and raised this issue. We will continue to work with the educational authorities, liaising with partners including the newly formed Chinuch UK, to argue for a better quality of dialogue which is not driven by the prejudices of an illiberal secularism, but aimed at the best outcome for all our children.