News this week that Orthodox representatives sought a “quid pro quo” with Hackney Council over the safeguarding of boys in yeshivas ought to horrify all who read it.
Yeshivas are not inspected, so no one has any idea what – if any – safeguarding measures are in place there. Yet up to 1,500 Jewish boys attend yeshivas in Hackney alone.
When a special independent commission set up by the council approached the Orthodox leaders to help get yeshivas up to scratch, the initial reaction was positive. But two months later they backed off, saying they wanted something in return. What did they want? For yeshivas to be excused from the national curriculum, something Hackney couldn’t grant – even if it wanted to.
It is nothing short of shocking that the safety of Jewish boys was used as a bargaining chip in a public policy dispute. This newspaper sides with no one willing to do that.
What was it that Hackney wanted the yeshivas to do? Criminal record checks on all staff, safeguarding training, whistle-blowing procedures… Nothing that ought to worry any safe institution. In fact, everything it should already be doing.
What can be done? Nothing. Why? Because no one has the power to close down these yeshivas. Why? Because they are not registered as schools, and nor do they need to be. Why? Because of the way “schools” are legally defined. It means that they fall down a legal black hole between the inspectorate, councils and the Department for Education – accountable to none.
The ability of yeshivas not to play ball and not to feel any consequences on such a fundamental issue is a damning indictment on past governments, which may well have endangered the welfare of Orthodox boys potentially at risk in these closed, unregistered settings.
This government must be better. It must act. Moreover, it must act now, and our community must support it. This includes defining “a school” as “any place designated as a school by the local authority”, so yeshivas have to register for inspections. It also includes legislation giving clear and unambiguous legal powers to local authorities to enter – and potentially close – unsafe and illegal settings.
So far, however, this government’s response has been wholly inadequate, choosing only to throw money at the problem and “consult on frameworks”, as if it were a non-consulted framework that really posed the problem here.
The Jewish community is rightfully proud of its education system (last week’s Jewish Schools Awards is testament to this), and the Orthodox community is rightly proud of its noble Torah traditions, but these have never, should never and will never come before a child’s safety. Let’s sort it.