Voice of the Jewish News: Lessons for both sides of the debate
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Voice of the Jewish News: Lessons for both sides of the debate

This week's editorial reflects on the row between Jewish communal bodies and the government over relationship and sex education

The cold war between the Charedi community and the government over education rumbles on. This week, Orthodox leaders were irked by plans to legally require parents to tell councils if their child is not being taught in a school.

This would finally allow councils such as Hackney to get a handle on how many children are being taught at home or in yeshivas and unlicensed premises. At present, Ofsted’s best guess is around 1,500 – mainly boys. It could be twice that.

Orthodox groups say a compulsory new ‘register’ would be an encroachment on their rights. The government says it is about safeguarding. There are arguments on both sides, but the well-being
of children should trump all in this debate.

Yet the debate is not just about registers. It is much wider and must be seen in the context of recent and regular Ofsted downgrades of Orthodox schools, in part because they refuse to teach children about different sexualities and genders.

The government’s new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) law requires schools to do so, but on the sex education component it gives a parental opt-out until the child is aged 15. Some Orthodox educators say privately that they can live with that.

For others, it is still terrible. A debate in the House of Lords today will take place against the backdrop of a large Charedi prayer gathering, which is a nice way of saying ‘protest’.

There are strong views on both sides. The government insists schools must teach children fundamental British values such as tolerance, and this includes teaching them that not everyone is heterosexual, or identifies as the gender of their birth. The Charedi community insists it can teach children tolerance without teaching that.

Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS), the umbrella body, issued guidance this week saying schools should “ensure that our children can form positive friendships and healthy relationships and are aware and protected from the increasing challenges that they are facing”.

Some things could help smooth the way, though. The Charedi community could input into the training of teachers.

Parents could input into how a school teaches RSE. London Ofsted inspectors could visit Charedi schools in Manchester that recently got good grades, in part by teaching equalities laws without “encouraging homosexuality”.

In short, where there’s a will, there’s a way. But the will is lacking, and this week’s new consultation on laws requiring parents to register their unregistered children is being seen as a government response to Orthodox threats of a mass exodus from the classroom to the home.

As with Brexit, we hope sensible heads prevail.

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