THE BLOG

Outlawing Faith Schools Will Help No One

07/06/2013 13:11 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

When I set up Eden Primary I did it specifically to help break down barriers between different sects of Judaism, and between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. I wanted to create a Jewish school that was open to all, no matter what their background. In fact the slogan of the school was, and still is, 'A Jewish school where everyone is welcome'.

I had experience of the divisive nature of Jewish schools: orthodox schools that wouldn't recognise the new cross-communal secondary, JCoSS; admissions policies based on racist principles; school governors who truly believed that the primary job of a Jewish school should be to keep Jewish children away from non-Jews (or 'schvartzers' as the person in question disgustingly referred to anyone not born of a pure-bred Jewish mother).

When we opened Eden Primary there was a massive wave of enthusiasm from the local community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In fact many Jewish families told me that they had never considered a faith school for their child previously because they hated the exclusive nature that so many of them espouse. For 2013, a third of our applications has come from non-Jewish families, which is an astonishing figure for an openly Jewish school. I welcome the integration this will bring.

But unfortunately legislation is not the way to promote truly cross-communal admissions. The battle for cultural diversity must take place not in the statute books of parliament but in the minds of people who run schools. I have been to admissions forums for Jewish school governors, and the attitude prevalent amongst the majority is not to embrace the spirit of the law. Rather, most seek to find loopholes or workarounds to avoid it. I know of an Orthodox free school which projects an image of itself as being so steeped in religious practice that it's hard to imagine any non-Jewish family wanting to go near the place. I know of another that has sought a special dispensation to be allowed to operate half-full rather than allow non-Jewish children in. I have heard talk, in discussions of synagogue attendance by non-Jews, of 'the fear of Mr Patel's son' getting into a Jewish school.

Tightening the rules won't help as long as attitudes like this prevail. The way to achieve true cross-communal integration in faith schools is to show them that they don't need to fear Mr Patel. The popularity of Eden Primary is in stark contrast to some other Jewish schools that still hold out for all-Jewish cohorts, and parents will vote with their feet.

I understand that, for some, exposing their children to the non-Jewish community is unacceptable, and I respect their views as I respect anyone with a sincerely held opinion. Outlawing them will help no one. Welcoming them as part of the rich variety of our society is a responsibility for those who believe in a tolerant, welcoming community.