OPINION: Strictly-Orthodox schools must evolve to be part of British life

OPINION: Strictly-Orthodox schools must evolve to be part of British life

By Richy Thompson, Education Campaigns Officer, British Humanist Association19 humanist

Every young person has a right to a broad and balanced education, including English, maths, the arts and humanities. 

The right to an understanding of not just scientific knowledge but the scientific method, how science is a robust and self-correcting process of working out what is true, and how and why it leads to the conclusion that the evidence in favour of life having evolved over millions of years is overwhelming, while the evidence in favour of life having been created over a short period of time a few thousand years ago is extremely weak.

To that end, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and other organisations and individuals have been campaigning for evolution to be added to the primary national curriculum (instead of being taught from ages 14 to 15), and for statutory rules to be introduced ensuring that creationism and intelligent design are not presented as scientifically valid.

Thankfully, all the major political parties share our concerns in this area, and so a new module on evolution has been introduced for 10 to 11-year-olds.

Academy and free school funding agreements require them to teach evolution and preclude them from teaching any pseudoscientific ideas as scientifically valid, and the Government has clarified that any state school teaching creationism as science is breaking laws that require a balanced education.

As a result, many of the problems we have seen in this area have disappeared. In the early days of the free school programme, many applicants came from creationist groups, but more recently these have almost entirely stopped.

The so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ schools in Birmingham were also criticised for teaching creationism as science. However, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School, a Stamford Hill Charedi Jewish state school, has continued to cause headaches. Last year, it came to light the school had been censoring exam questions on evolution, a practice subsequently banned by Ofqual and the exam boards.

It also emerged that the school ‘teaches evolution in Jewish studies’ and that creationism ‘is taught to all year groups throughout the school in Jewish studies’. In October, the head gave an interview in Hackney Citizen, which suggested that in spite of recent controversies, very little had changed.

Against this backdrop it was surprising that Ofsted’s recent inspection of the school not only rated it as ‘good’, but failed to even mention any of these issues. We have queried how this happened. But in many ways, Yesodey Hatorah is just the tip of the iceberg.

A much bigger problem is surely the fact there are some 2,000 boys in illegal, unregistered schools in Hackney, a problem Ofsted, the Government and the Council have known about for years but failed to address. The All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) recently heard from one ex-Charedi who spent virtually his whole education focused on religious texts. When he left the community he spoke essentially no English, in spite of having grown up in London.

Creationism pales in comparison to the huge issues these boys face. What is particularly disappointing about all this is that while too many don’t seem to care about this educational neglect, the attitude taken by some mainstream Jewish individuals is that it is wrong for anybody who is not Jewish to care about what happens to these children.

The line heard is that Jewish groups should deal with Jewish problems and nobody else should get involved (in spite of seemingly doing little to address the issues themselves).

This is exemplified by Najos, the umbrella group for both mainstream and strictly Orthodox Jewish schools, which told Jewish News it was “appalled” the APPHG even had such an individual come to speak in the first place, denied there were any unregistered schools and campaigns to “contain/prevent the teaching of evolution”.

From the outside looking in, it appears the mainstream Orthodox schools and individuals involved in Najos have recognised the population growth of the Charedi community and alongside their own population decline are therefore keen to work with the only expanding part of Judaism.

The result is that the representative body for mainstream Orthodox schools ends up particularly lobbying in favour of those whose interests are the furthest outside the mainstream.

This cannot do the mainstream schools any good, in the long run, as it means they are defending positions that are politically untenable and only becoming more so.

As a result, they will increasingly lose credibility with the relevant ministers.

They are losing sight of the fundamental principles I have set out here.

The BHA will continue to stand up for the right of all children, regardless of their religion or belief, to have a good quality education that allows them to become part of British society.

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