by Brian Gordon, Conservative Councillor, Barnet
MANY PEOPLE are unaware of the underlying threats currently posed to Britain’s religious educational institutions. At schools, those threats relate to admissions policies and the content of religious teaching.
On admissions, there is the continued effort by those overly obsessed with “social cohesion” and “equalities” to compel faith schools to take a quota of pupils from other faiths. In my view, this is a destructive policy and an assault on religious liberty. A Jewish school is for Jews, a Catholic school for Catholics, a Hindu school for Hindus, and so on. If schools wish to mix faiths, that is their choice. If they wish to remain exclusive to their own faith, this is a fundamental freedom that should not be impeded.
Religious teaching itself is hampered by the attitude that faith schools should be stopped from being academically monolithic and should compulsorily teach religions other than their own. The argument runs that an obligatory diverse religious syllabus enhances British values of tolerance and understanding. In reality, the converse can be the case. If a faith school wishes to teach other religions – that’s fine. But forcing a school to do so against its ethos is more likely to cause resentment, and confusion as to pupils’ own identity. I speak as a strong believer in interfaith respect and co-operation.
Another threat comes from the desire to make sex education compulsory across the board as part of the national curriculum. Yes, in today’s “liberated” society there is an argument for the subject to be taught, if only to warn of the dangers of diseases and potential child abuse. But faith schools have good reason to opt out. Orthodox religions have firmly rooted doctrines on family values, personal modesty and relationships. Their children do not need instruction on such a sensitive subject in a school context.
The threat is not only to schools. In its commendable desire to combat ‘radicalisation’ (a politically correct euphemism for Islamic extremism), measures are being considered to compel all “out-of-school educational settings” to become registered. This would, by definition, include yeshivas and seminaries. It would render them liable to random inspections, which could be intrusive and unsettling. Consequently, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations – one of numerous bodies recently consulted – responded that without account actively being taken of certain dangers, registration would be unacceptable.
One danger is that radicalisation has not been officially defined. Left-wing, secular-minded inspectors might well judge any religious doctrine as radical and extremist. Such judgment could be mischievously applied to the separation of men and women, Biblical teaching on creation, circumcision, dietary laws and other hallowed concepts.
Radicalisation would therefore need to be defined to recognise the true scourge that now threatens society. My suggested definition would be “the promotion of hatred, violence and terrorism against others” – nothing more, nothing less. Furthermore the inspection of an out-of-school setting should only be triggered following a series of complaints against it. With these parameters in place, an Orthodox Jewish setting would have little to fear from registration. Our religion is one of peace, tolerance, abhorrence of violence and respect for law. On the whole, the Anglo-Jewish community is a proud reflection of this.
The other danger is Ofsted. The UOHC has insisted that if out-of-school registration is introduced Ofsted should have no part in the process.
Ofsted inspectors have been entering orthodox Jewish schools and asking children highly insensitive questions on sexuality, aetheism and “alternative life styles”. Some have shown outright prejudice by marking down top performing faith schools. This aside, Ofsted’s obsessive bureaucracy and paperwork has driven numerous teachers out of the profession. If anything needs monitoring and overhaul, it is Ofsted itself.
I would emphasise that politically there has never been a better government for Jews than the current one. David Cameron and his ministers are unequivocal in their desire to protect the freedom of religious practices, including faith schools. The threats I have enumerated emanate principally from civil servants, whose agenda is often diametrically opposed to that of elected politicians.
Our message to Government should be this. Politicians should not allow unelected civil servants to dictate the education agenda. Jewish schools are among the highest academic achievers. They produce upright, law-abiding citizens who are a credit to the nation. They should not be obstructed in the dubious causes of “social cohesion” and “equalities”, nor in the otherwise worthy pursuit of countering Islamic extremism.