Hackney Council has said it is “trying to tackle” the issue of unregistered Orthodox Jewish schools in Stamford Hill, after a 200-student school defiantly stayed open despite a government closure order.
The Local Authority, which has legal responsibility for safe-guarding, was reacting to a story in The Independent this week, accusing it of “destroying evidence” about the extent of the problem.
A spokeswoman denied there was been a “cover-up” but could not produce any notes of the meeting at which council and Department for Education officials discussed the problem, as referenced in the information provided by a later Freedom of Information request.
“In 2010 we asked [Orthodox] schools, both registered and unregistered, for information on pupil numbers, but following a legal challenge by parents, we were told to return that information for reasons of data protection,” she said.
The spokeswoman estimated that there are “about 1,000” Jewish children being educated in 29 unregistered Orthodox schools in Hackney at any one time, as compared to only 20 registered schools in the borough, but she said the Authority had little or no power to act.
“We’re very limited in terms of what we can do. Every year we ask the schools for information, but we never get replies. We can’t inspect schools, that’s Ofsted, nor can we enforce closure, that’s the DfE.”
She added that Talmud Torah Tashbar (TTT), a Charedi school which does not teach English or secular education “as a matter of religious principle,” is still open despite the DfE ordering it to close in February.
“It’s reopened, but in truth it never really closed,” said a Hackney official. “We were told it was being used as a community centre, but now believe that it was still being used as a school.”
Rabbi Avroham Pinter, a spokesman for the Stamford Hill community, said: “The school has said it is closed, I have no information to the contrary. I understand the children are getting home schooling from the parents.”
The DfE, which said only that it was “investigating” the school, also said it was “investigating” the 2010 meeting at which a Department representative was informed that hundreds of Jewish children – mainly boys – were dropping out of the state (registered) sector, often at the age of 13 years.
A DfE spokeswoman added: “We’re asking for anyone with evidence of unregistered schools to come to us, but the safe-guarding of children in schools is a Local Authority responsibility.”
In January, the government announced “an escalation of Ofsted investigations into unregistered schools, with additional inspectors dedicated to rooting them out, a new tougher approach to prosecuting them and a call to local authorities to help identify any setting of concern”.
Figures show that, every year, more than 450 Orthodox boys are in registered schools at the age of four, but this drops to about 50 boys by the age of 13. Most Orthodox girls continue in state education until they are 16 years old.