THE BLOG

Religious Shame of Illegal Schools

19/05/2016 09:39 | Updated 19 May 2016

Yet again religion is in the dock, and yet again those of faith who abide by the law and seek to do good are being tarnished by others of faith who act illegally and engage in dubious practices.

This time it is the illegal schools that have been uncovered by the educational authority, Ofsted under the watch of its Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw. His team have uncovered more than 100 unregistered schools and have estimated that over five thousand pupils are being taught in them.

A high percentage - thought to be over half - are faith-based schools, from either the Muslim or Jewish communities. As a rabbi, I am a great supporter of Judaism in particular and the value of faith in general, but I am also opposed to the misuse of faith, especially in educational settings.

Focusing on the illegal Jewish schools, though the same principles will apply to Muslim ones, one problem is that they are denying the children the rounded education that they deserve. By concentrating on biblical and rabbinic teachings to the exclusion of all other subjects, the children emerge without basic English skills and lack any knowledge of maths, science, human biology and other essentials.

Second, this then deprives them of the ability to operate in wider society, gain a job or develop any personal skills. Third, the lack of any government oversight means that the teachers often do not have any qualifications to teach, and may even use punishments that are illegal. Fourth, many of the illegal schools have totally inadequate heath and safety provision, be it the hygiene in the toilets or kitchen, or the fire escapes and extinguishers.

It is astonishing that these illegal schools are only now being exposed when they have been known about for several years. Why was nothing done about it until now? On the local level, such as in Hackney, north London, it may have been because the high number of ultra-Orthodox Jews living in the Borough and whose children attend such schools made it a politically-sensitive issue and led councillors to turn a blind eye.

On a national level, it may have been because the ultra-Orthodox communities were not seen as posing as much a threat as others. Like they Amish, they may live within their own closely defined circles, but they are largely law-abiding, with few instances of drugs, violence or crime, and so were not seen as a threat to wider society.

As for the parents who knowingly send their children to illegal schools, far from being uncaring, they genuinely see no value in secular studies. They therefore prefer schools that do not 'waste time' on such subjects and instead have an exclusively religious curriculum.

The irony is that there are many Jewish schools - including ultra-orthodox ones - that are registered and do cater for children from very observant backgrounds. They highlight the fact that there is no reason why pupils cannot be deeply religious and have a good general knowledge.

All credit to Ofsted for at last having the political courage to both track down and publicise the illegal schools, who do such a disservice both to the children who attend and to the society into which they will emerge and help shape. If we want a tolerant pluralist society, we have to have a tolerant pluralist educational system that leads to it.

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