“The DfE [Department for Education] are well aware of the problem. The argument is always that if they shut the schools down they’ll go undercover. But first and foremost, the government has to implement the law. Slow progress would be something – but the DfE hasn’t done anything at all,” a former student at one of these illegal haredi schools, who 'graduated' even though he could barely speak English let alone do basic math, said.
The Guardian has a featured report today on illegal haredi schools in London.
What the Guardian found can be summarized this way: The British government spent years, maybe even decades, willfully ignoring woefully inadequate secular education at haredi schools that lack licenses and are therefore illegal. Most of those schools appear to be linked to the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC), the London equivalent of the Jerusalem-based vehemently anti-Zionist and heavily hasidic Edah Haredit haredi umbrella organization. And the British government is still ignoring the problem. It is also providing only evasive answers, if it answers at all, when questioned by the media.
The the schools are illegal and the boys who attend them are considered to be truant under the law is not is dispute. Neither is the woefully inadequate secular education these truant haredi kids get, if they get any secular education at all.
This is child abuse, pure and simple, facilitated by a government that fears haredi riots like those that frequently plague Jerusalem, fears radicalizing a portion of the haredi population even further than it already is radicalized, and fears driving these illegal schools completely underground. And of course this child abuse is also facilitated by politicians who care far more about the bloc vote these haredi groups provide than they do about the kids who are hurt.
“The DfE [Department for Education] are well aware of the problem. The argument is always that if they shut the schools down they’ll go undercover. But first and foremost, the government has to implement the law. Slow progress would be something – but the DfE hasn’t done anything at all,” a former student at one of these illegal haredi schools, who 'graduated' even though he could barely speak English let alone do basic math, told the Guardian.
And it likely won't do anything at all until former or current students take legal action or until enough press coverage of this scandal so embarrasses the government that it is compelled to act. The latter is what happened with the Belz school, Beis Malka, who threatened to expel students whose mothers drive cars (a story first reported by Behadrei Haredim in Hebrew and FailedMessiah.com in English).
At any rate, the Guardian reports:
On a warm afternoon on a recent visit at the heart of London’s Hassidic Jewish community, fathers with people-carriers are collecting their children from pre-schools and primary schools. Little groups of teenage girls link arms in the sunshine and chatter together in Yiddish as they walk home from the Yesodey Hatorah voluntary-aided secondary school in Stamford Hill.
Strikingly, though – in a community where large families are the norm – there are no teenage boys on the streets today. Nor are there any registered secondary schools – independent or state – for Jewish boys in this area.
Where do they go, the boys, when they leave the area’s many independent primary schools at the age of 12?
It is no secret – from the age of 13, many boys in this community attend religious yeshivas, which focus on study of the Talmud and the Torah. These schools start early and finish late – according to some accounts, continuing until 10pm. They do not teach the national curriculum, and according to former pupils there is little tuition in basics such as English or maths.
But there’s a problem. Most yeshivas, according to briefing notes written by officials at the Department for Education [DfE] and released under the Freedom of Information Act three years ago, are not registered as schools.
“Most … are therefore operating illegally and without the most basic health, safety and child welfare checks. We understand that boys from abroad may attend yeshivas here on some kind of boarding basis – this is also completely unregulated,” the DfE’s officials add.
Legally, all schools must be registered with the DfE and it is an offence for anyone who provides a full-time education for pupils of compulsory school age to fail to do so.
So what is the DfE doing about this? The issue was first raised by the Jewish Chronicle in 2008, and has been the subject of discussions between the department and other interested groups ever since.
But those groups – who include the British Humanist Association (BHA) and former members of the UK’s Orthodox Jewish communities – have now raised concerns that no enforcement action has yet been taken. And in response to a freedom of information request from Education Guardian, the DfE has disclosed that although it has met representatives of registered Jewish schools many times, it has no records of any such meetings with the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations – the organisation that represents the wider Orthodox community in London.
The department told us it had held five meetings with the National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools since 1 April 2012. At one meeting it discussed the regulatory position of a registered school, the Talmud Torah Chaim Meirim Wiznitz [Vizhnitz] school in Hackney, which had been the subject of a critical report by Ofsted. But the association told Education Guardian it represented only registered schools and did not wish to express a view on unregistered yeshivas.
The Jewish community is not the only one in which unregistered schools are an issue: Education Guardian reported in 2011 on the growing number of Islamic schools which were operating illegally. But while reports suggest that investigations are under way into a number of unregistered Muslim schools, some commentators believe the DfE is reluctant to take a hard line with the Orthodox Jewish community.
Britain’s Hassidic communities are growing much faster than most of the population – at more than 3% a year in a few wards. So there is, the DfE noted in 2012, growing pressure on these areas’ independent schools – both legal and illegal – and they are expanding rapidly.
And there is growing concern in Stamford Hill and the surrounding area. Joanna – like many of those interviewed for this article, she doesn’t want her real name to be used – is a long-term local resident. She contacted the Guardian earlier this year to ask why, when the existence of these unregistered schools was such an open secret, none had ever been closed down or faced legal action. Joanna, who works in education in a neighbouring borough, accompanies me on a walk around the area. She feels community cohesion is an issue when two such different groups live so closely together. “I see the tensions that arise, and I find it concerning that there are children here who don’t seem to get the right education,” she says. “If people want to continue family traditions, that’s fine – but these children have the right to choose.”
Within an hour or so it is possible to visit seven or eight yeshivas, dotted around the small grid of streets where this population lives. Typically they are tucked away behind a big terraced or semi-detached house, housed in a single-storey building or a prefab. There’s little sign that education is taking place within, though their addresses are quite openly listed in a local services directory.
In one case, the address we have looks like an abandoned building with boarded-up windows. But again there’s another building at the back which I am told houses the yeshiva. And when I look through the open door of the first, apparently empty, premises there is a fully equipped commercial kitchen and the lingering smell of food that must have been prepared for lunch. At another address where an independent primary school is registered, we glimpse boys who look considerably older than the school’s 12-year-old upper age limit.
According to the DfE’s 2012 briefing note, there are 800-1,000 Orthodox Jewish boys between the ages of 13 and 16 missing from the school system in the London borough of Hackney. And while this is the UK’s biggest Hassidic community, it is likely that similar situations exist in other areas where smaller groups live, including Salford and Gateshead.
And there has been concern from members of the Hassidic community, too. In a central London coffee shop, I meet David – not his real name. He declines to meet in Stamford Hill because it would be inappropriate for him to be seen there with a woman, even though he no longer lives there.
David is in his 20s. He says he barely spoke English when he left yeshiva at the age of 19, and that he had to virtually begin his education again after telling his family their lifestyle was not for him. “Most people who try to leave end up going back because they find it impossible,” he says. Ofsted did sometimes visit his yeshiva to find out whether it was operating illegally, he says – and the children were often told not to come to school or to leave if the inspectors arrived.
David talks quickly, with the air of a man on a mission. Having adopted a new lifestyle, he is determined to help others who may wish to move on but feel unable to do so. “The DfE are well aware of the problem. The argument is always that if they shut the schools down they’ll go undercover. But first and foremost, the government has to implement the law. Slow progress would be something – but the DfE hasn’t done anything at all.”
The age of mobile communication has allowed some of those who remain to keep in touch with him and to voice their concerns, he says. “There are people in the community now who are concerned, and they are able to talk to me.
“Sooner or later someone will take legal action – I’ve already had barristers offering to help me, and asking if I know anyone who wants to bring a case. It’s a form of child neglect. They’re depriving children of their basic right to education.”
The BHA says it has raised the issue often, but little has been done. Jay Harman, the organisation’s campaigns officer for faith schools and education, says it has received no indication of any plan for action by the DfE. “The BHA has been pushing the DfE on unregistered Orthodox schools for some time now,” he says. “These yeshivas are not subject to any inspections and they don’t have to adhere to any standards, so they shouldn’t really exist at all. They are simply places to which kids are sent to be indoctrinated from dawn till dusk, and it is a scandal that the government has failed to deal with them for so long.”
The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations did not return Education Guardian’s calls. The DfE said in a statement that it meets regularly with representatives of registered Jewish schools. But despite an invitation to add to its FOI response with further comment on unregistered schools, it chose not to do so. “We work with the authorities – including police and councils - to ensure that all children are safe and receive suitable education,” it said.
[Hat Tip: D.O.]