The U.K. is a malchus shel chessed, in which the kehillah is not only free to practice Yiddishkeit, but is generally supported in doing so.
Paradoxically, this also creates some problems. Many Jewish schools are “voluntary-aided” schools, in which the Government pays for infrastructure and secular studies, and limudei kodesh is funded by the parents. The downside of this arrangement is that state (public) schools in the U.K. must follow the National Curriculum, some areas of which are problematic for Jewish schools.
Independent (fee-paying schools) do not have to follow this curriculum. However, they must still be registered with the government, and, like state schools, are inspected regularly. Around 90 percent of chareidi children are educated in independent schools.
The monitoring body for schools is Ofsted – the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. While Ofsted’s stated aim is to “achieve excellence in education and skills for learners of all ages, and in the care of children and young people,” in practice, in recent years, Ofsted seems to be trying its hand at social engineering.
As can been seen from the interviews with askanim presented here, the situation is deteriorating, with schools which provide an otherwise excellent education being marked down on inspection for their inability to cover certain material.
Another and perhaps even more worrying issue is that of “integration.” The Government has decided that all children must be prepared for life in modern Britain. Fringe pressure groups have influenced so-called independent agencies of Government to restrict parents’ choices and trample all over traditional society.
Recent Ofsted inspections have been very worrying for the chareidi community as inspectors seem to have overstepped their brief, seemingly determined to trample on our chinuch which has been passed down through the generations. The kehillah is beginning to worry if we are in a situation of gezeiras shmad?
Rabbanim, askanim and professional and lay leadership of Jewish schools across the country continue to put in huge amounts of time and effort to dealing with these issues. Herewith are addressed some of the kehillah’s concerns and potential solutions.
Education of our children has been our nation’s priority since receiving the Torah millennia ago. On these shores, survivors of the Nazis’ inferno prioritized above all else building the Mosdos Hachinuch in which our communities rightfully take such pride today.
However, we are ever-conscious of the fact that we are still in exile and, as such, are merely sojourning in what has been a true malchus shel chessed. How long that sojourn will continue, though, may depend on the outcome of a precarious situation facing the continued purity of the chinuch of our boys and girls.
The interviewees were Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, principal of Yesodey HaTorah Schools, Stamford Hill; Rabbi Yidel Baumgarten, Head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations education committee; and Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Royde, all representatives of the UOHC for Ofsted issues. These larger-than-life men have been living and breathing communal responsibility since their youths, having been raised in distinguished families that are all renowned for their contributions to chinuch. In recent years, they have been ably assisted by newcomers Reb Shmuel Lew and Reb Benzion Steiner. Their joint activism is greatly enhanced by the comprehensive legal advice they regularly seek for communal matters.
The purpose of the interview was to gain some insight into the background of the present challenge, what success the chareidi community has met in dealing with it and what this may mean for the future of education in the U.K.
Rabbi Yidel Baumgarten – Chair of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregation (UOHC) Education Committee
Shimon Cohen – Founder and Chairman of The PR Office, Campaign Director of Shechita UK
Rabbi Dov Oppenheimer – Consultant to Menahalim, governors and Rabbanim for schools throughout the U.K.
Rabbi Avrohom Pinter – Principal of Yesodey HaTorah Schools, Chair of UOHC External Affairs Committee
Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Royde – Representative of the UOHC for Ofsted issues
At the beginning of our meeting, Rabbi Baumgarten shared some background on inspections in frum schools, as well as a remarkable legal success story from 30 years ago.
Rabbi Baumgarten: Before Ofsted, the inspectors were part of the Department of Education. Dr. Roy Long was Her Majesty’s Inspector for the faith schools from 1993-2005.
Rabbi Pinter: I remember Dr. Long coming to Yesodey HaTorah and saying to me, “If you can’t afford to run a private school, how dare you run one!” He had no understanding as to why this community needed its own school. He saw us as a private school like Eton, which one would only establish if they have the wherewithal. What he did not understand — at that point — was that we are a community that was founded by a group of refugees. They arrived in England with only the clothes on their backs, without even a parnassah, and their first mission was to open up a school for the community.
Rabbi Baumgarten: So he began with no appreciation for the community. Slowly, he grew to love the community.
Rabbi Royde: Yes, by the time he left he gave us some good pieces of advice for which we are still indebted today.
Rabbi Baumgarten: My involvement in education started in the 1980s in the Belzer Cheder. At that time the Cheder received a closure order because we did not teach enough secular subjects. I decided, with the advice of the Belzer Rebbe, to challenge this closure order in court. I put forward the argument that although we concede that we are not teaching enough secular subjects, what we teach as part of Kodesh contributes very much to “secular” education. For instance, linguistic skill need not be limited to English. One can be fluent in English, Yiddish or Lashon Hakodesh. The same is true of writing skills. I went for a judicial review and I set out to prove how Kodesh contributes to Chol. The judge was Justice Woolf and the details are recorded in case law.
Who assisted you in your arguments?
Rabbi Baumgarten: There was a Yid in Golders Green, Professor Prijs. He had fiery enthusiasm for our mosdos, despite having a different personal outlook.
Then there was a “Yiddishist” by the name of Professor David Katz, who today lives in Vilna. I remember that when he came to our school, this man, who was the head of the Department of Yiddish at Oxford University, was crying like a child, so moved was he by what he saw. With our well-researched case Justice Woolf sent us to the tribunal. We had a barrister, Matthew Horton QC. When I first met Matthew, he gave me a grueling cross-examination for over two hours. He asked me, “Are you crazy, trying to bring up your children with two and a half hours’ secular studies in today’s day and age? You expect me to represent you?” After two and a half hours, he stretched out his hand and said, “Rabbi Baumgarten, I see how convinced you are. I am happy to work with you.”
In those days the school inspectors were often accompanied by a galach (priest) who understood Hebrew. At the tribunal, the galach was given a Chumash to read from, and he held it upside down. Mr. Horton said to the judge, “Do you realize that this so-called ‘inspector’ is not even holding the text the correct way around?” The whole court case went in the wrong direction for the government. After eight days, the officials from the Department asked if we could agree to withdraw. … I consulted with the Belzer Rebbe, who told me, “It is not your business to shame the British Government. You entered this court case to vindicate your school and you’ve done that, so let them go.”
Rabbi Royde: The outcome of this court case is something from which most of our mosdos have benefited for many years, and have taken for granted, without realizing how it came to be.
Rabbi Baumgarten: The result of that was that for many years all our mosdos had respite due to the government’s recognition that Kodesh is not “religious studies” per se; rather, it is subjects that our religion requires, that contribute towards and therefore satisfy the need for secular education. It covers a whole lot of the subjects the regulations require. I would point out that last week we had an inspection in Belz, where we have derived an entire curriculum of Geography based on Kodesh, so we ticked the boxes for that requirement.
Rabbi Pinter: Until 2002, all you needed to provide was “Suitable and Efficient” education; there was little detail as to what this included.
Rabbi Royde: This term of “suitable education” — which, as an aside, is still debated in the House of Lords — is still very broad. Therefore, there are no clear-cut guidelines on the definition, which makes it very difficult for the mosdos, since each inspector interprets the meaning differently.
You’re referring to the private schools only?
Rabbi Pinter: Yes. Only private schools.
Why did only Belz have difficulty in those days?
Rabbi Baumgarten: Only Belz took the plunge to challenge the government. There was a huge debate if we should do it, and Rabbi Shmelke Pinter, zt”l, advised us we should do it and supported us. I was convinced, after consulting with the professionals we mentioned earlier, that we would win.
Rabbi Pinter: Because of Belz’s success, there have, sadly, been attempts to imitate their approach that have failed, which also had ramifications for all the mosdos. Many of the issues that we are suffering from now are due to a court case that failed.
To understand Ofsted, I give an analogy for getting a MOT [an annual test of vehicle safety] for a car. It is not usually a big deal, but on occasion you may be stopped by a traffic officer. When that happens, they will fail your car even if your car passed the MOT the day before. Similarly, when they come to our mosdos, they come with their agenda regarding the Protected Characteristics, and do not regard the progress the mosad may have made in other areas.
There were no problems trying to satisfy Health and Safety issues in those days?
Rabbi Pinter: It was not the same then. The Health and Safety requirements were negligible. For example, they did not have DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) in those days. However, nowadays, Health and Safety is a top priority in our schools. What does it say about our attitude to education if we send our children to learn in dilapidated and dangerous buildings?
What was the turning point, when the challenge went from trying to satisfy the government in educational standards to satisfying their expectation of conveying “British Values”?
Rabbi Royde: The aim of the Equality Act of 2010 was to require showing tolerance to those with protected characteristics. At that point it became illegal to discriminate against anyone with those characteristics, and as such the schools needed to display that they recognized this equality.
The Equality Act was therefore not in response to religious extremism and violence?
Rabbi Pinter: No, it was simply a matter of equality. This was before the days of mass scale religious-inspired extremism and terror in the U.K.
Rabbi Royde: Following this Act, Ofsted saw it as their duty to interpret the law and impose its interpretation on the school curriculum. As mentioned before, though, this is simply their interpretation; it has not stood the test of the courts and would not necessarily do so.
Previously, the Human Rights Act of 1998 introduced the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, Article 9 of which is freedom of religion “in teaching, practice and observance.” Would the argument that we must be free to educate as we see fit not conflict with Ofsted’s interpretation of the Equality Act?
Rabbi Pinter: One of the biggest problems here is that there are different human rights, and when one conflicts the other, individual freedom will always win. Therefore, the protected characteristics are always going to overpower the right of religious education. Our advice has been to not use this argument. However, I believe that the entire misunderstanding of the issue is that our education is seen as infringing on those rights. What has yet to be tested in court is the following: We have a right to raise our children within the parameters of our faith (i.e., the religious way), and by doing so we can argue that we educate them not to discriminate against anyone, so we therefore do not infringe on the rights of the “Protected Individuals.” This is what I believe would possibly win in a higher court.
Does Ofsted see this as the cure to religious extremism?
Rabbi Pinter: What has happened here is the deliberate blurring between “religious extremism” and “religious conservatism.” Everyone understands the fear of religious extremism. … However, most religious people in the U.K. are not interested in violence at all, although they may be proudly religious … The Humanists are deliberately conflating extremism with conservatism.
Rabbi Royde: This was the case with Ms. Amanda Spielman, the current head of Ofsted. She has recently shared openly her opinions about tolerance and British values in general and the ramifications it has on society when schools deliberately resist imparting these values.
In a speech for the release of the annual Ofsted 2016/2017 report on December 13, 2017, she said,
“Imparting those values can sometimes be in tension with parental wishes or with community norms.”
More recently, giving evidence to the education committee in March of this year, she said,
“We have a very important set of British values, which include respect for others. If we tolerate deeply intolerant practices and culture within schools, then we are not actually living British values — we are allowing others to grow up without them.”
When she was asked, “Is ‘muscular liberalism’ secularism?” her reply was,
“No, muscular liberalism is not secularism. But it is making sure that we don’t inadvertently create spaces where intolerance can breed.”
Basically, she is saying that parents no longer have the right to educate their children in what they consider to be the best way, if it goes against the secular way of life. … If our way of life contradicts the “British” way of life, we have actually taught intolerance.
Rabbi Pinter: Former Prime Minister David Cameron coined the phrase “muscular liberalism” in 2011. He was referring to people who were allowing problems like terrorism to flourish due to political correctness. Ms. Spielman is claiming that allowing religious conservatism to continue is an example of muscular liberalism, which is a deliberate confusion with what the government really is seeking to address, which is religious extremism.
Rabbi Royde: The Humanists see all religion as extremist.
Rabbi Pinter: The Humanists are a small group — about 5000 members — but they are affecting millions with their activities, and the tone of their material … It is a matter for serious concern when Ofsted and government departments immediately respond to a group that has a clear anti-Jewish and anti-religious agenda. At the moment, the Humanists are simultaneously running campaigns against milah, shechitah, faith schools and respect for the dead. It would seem that their idea of a modern Britain is one that is free of observant Jews. Really, it’s quite outrageous that any branch of the government gives these people the time of day.
Could we not join forces with the other major religions in challenging the demands against our sensitivities?
Rabbi Pinter: “We could not join with them, as unlike other religious school, we don’t venture into these subjects at all. All that the law requires is to teach that we will not discriminate against those that have those lifestyles, although our religion does not allow it. There is nothing against the law with that and in fact some local mosdos have implemented this approach. Understandably, this is not a solution for all of our mosdos though.”
Rabbi Baumgarten: Al pi halachah we are not allowed to enter these discussions with children. This is the ruling of the Rabbanim based on Rishonim. All Torah study is safe; as the Chazon Ish stated, “The Torah doesn’t harm.” However, this is only when taught as part of Torah. If the teaching is imposed on us from the outside, it could cause spiritual damage.
There are those who claim that if we [had] been successful in applying Health and Safety standards, we would never have had these problems. Is this correct?
Rabbi Royde: This is certainly incorrect.
Rabbi Baumgarten: To the contrary, there have been schools outstanding in areas of health and safety who nevertheless failed over this topic.
Rabbi Royde: Furthermore, the result of this is, by failing a school in this one topic, they then fail you in “personal development,” then on “bullying,” then “management” — and eventually, “overall development.”
Rabbi Pinter: Schools which have been judged outstanding by their Local Authorities have been failed by Ofsted for political and secularist reasons, even if they excel in Health and Safety. Nor is academic excellence a protection when a school has been targetted in this way.
If the chadarim [were to] teach more secular subjects, would that help?
Rabbi Baumgarten: We have some outstanding girls’ schools who are among the best in the country at teaching secular subjects and still fail over this issue. A certain school recently achieved a 90 percent on educational standards, yet failed due to this issue.
Why are they so opposed to our education? Can they not see that we don’t have drug problems or comparable crime levels to other communities in England and that, generally, we are also law-abiding?
Rabbi Baumgarten: They really don’t care. They follow their interpretation of the law, and if there are certain boxes they need to tick, there is nothing much they [feel that they] can do about it.
Rabbi Pinter: It seems that these days, having the ambition to raise a Yiddishe family is inadequate.
When it comes to Ofsted, are the independent schools at an advantage over state-aided schools?
Rabbi Baumgarten: When it comes to Ofsted, no faith school is at any advantage. The difference between state-aided school inspections and independent school inspections is that with independent inspections there is a “box-ticking exercise” of about 170 questions with a “Yes” or “No” answer. The inspector will not look at the overall situation, and they will tick the “No” box if in doubt. A state school, on the other hand, is judged based on overall effectiveness. So, for instance, a school like ours can achieve 90 percent but fail over this issue.
Ofsted is the only inspectorate to mark like this. There are other government-approved inspection bodies like ISI (Independent Schools Inspectorate) who do not use this grading. The law only requires leadership and management, so a school which achieves close to 90 percent certainly shows good leadership and management.
Could we therefore not challenge this box-ticking exercise?
Rabbi Pinter: Not at all. The inspectors come obsessed with this agenda. The tragedy is that instead of focusing on improving educational areas, schools are forced to focus on how to satisfy this requirement. This leads to a certain pride in failing. Some voices in the community actually complain when our newspapers “celebrate” a successful inspection, saying, “You scored outstanding or good in an inspection — what went wrong?”
Rabbi Baumgarten: When the inspectors came to our school, I told them we satisfy protected characteristics, as seven of them we have no problem with.
How are schools in other cities handling this challenge?
Rabbi Baumgarten: Each school depends on mazal, and [it] changes from inspector to inspector.
What is the next step?
Rabbi Pinter: We have gathered the leading Rabbanim of this country together to reach an agreement on our red lines. There are certain areas of discussion that our religion will not allow us to enter, and the government will need to recognize this, otherwise schools will need to close. And if that happens the children will not go to public schools. This will lead to a pressure on parents to home-school.
What was the main message of the Asifah?
Rabbi Pinter: The idea was to formulate a common “red line” that all the kehillos of the U.K. would agree that we would not be able to cross, and to convey this message to the government.
Is home-schooling a possibility?
Rabbi Pinter: Legally, yes, but there will not be the resources to do it. The government will have just ended up marginalizing a large community. That is not in the interest of anybody.
Rabbi Baumgarten: It will also cause a breach in safeguarding the children, as, presently, the schools can see if something is wrong with a child. So if the children go out of school, their well-being and safety would actually be compromised, which goes against the entire purpose of the Equality Act!
Rabbi Pinter: The government continues to show great concern about the rise of anti-Semitism. While this is much appreciated, realistically, I cannot see a future of having to leave due to anti-Semitism. Senior members of the government have said on a number of occasions that Britain without its Jewish community would not be Britain, and I believe this to be a genuine expression of their feelings. However, it is increasingly clear that Ofsted and some government departments do not share this sentiment.
The concern that future generations will not be able to practice Yiddishkeit freely is a far greater one than anti-Semitism. It seems that in some people’s eyes, we are “the wrong type of Jews” for modern Britain, and, sadly this is the real threat to the continuation of the Jewish community in the U.K.
Do you have the support of the more “modern” schools?
Rabbi Pinter: They are also finding it challenging to satisfy the current requirements in this topic, but even if they were, the future of the Jewish community is overwhelmingly charedi — over 50 percent of children born are born into the chareidi community.
People should remember that in Communist Russia there was no ban on privately practicing religion — the education and transmission of the mesorah was [the] crime. We fear that we are headed in the same direction.
What is your final message on this topic?
Rabbi Pinter: We are proud to be British citizens and we admire the long history of kindness extended to us by this remarkable malchus shel chessed. There are few, if any, other countries in the world who have been so supportive of faith schools in the past. Until now, I was sure that with goodwill and determination on both sides, the Jewish community and the government would reach an agreement that is satisfactory to everyone. Lately, however, the situation is deteriorating. The current guidance is such that the kehillah will have to seriously consider their future in the U.K.
We have a friend in the Prime Minister and hope that she will deliver on her message that “in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear.”
Interview with Rabbi Avrohom Pinter
After the interview with Rabbi Baumgarten, Rabbi Pinter and Rabbi Royde together, Hamodia had the privilege of meeting with Rabbi Pinter in his office at Yesodey HaTorah School. We saw him in action, busy with one pressing communal matter after another. It was in this whirlwind of activity that we managed to ask him some penetrating questions about his askanus efforts.
There are those in the kehillah who complain that a couple of years ago there was a similar consultation in the government, yet the majority of the kehillah were not made aware of [it]. This raises the question that, had more people been aware, [and] a stronger voice … been heard back then, … would [we] not have reached this stage?
You must understand that there are a lot of surface-level consultations where the conclusions are more or less predetermined. As is well-known, much of the time the organizers don’t take responses into account, save for the very well-thought-out ones. To be honest, in the previous consultation, even if there had been 10,000 respondents “for” and five “against,” nothing would have happened. It is merely a democratic exercise.
However, this is a call for evidence rather than a consultation, and it is not pre-decided, and the government is genuinely interested in the responses. We are encouraged by our success to date. Remember, we have maybe 60 schools in a country of 30,000 schools. The contact we have with top people in the Department of Education is totally disproportionate to the size of our kehillah. This is perhaps more impressive than in America.
Is it a correct assessment that the askanim for chinuch issues in the United States have better strategy than here in the U.K.?
American education is state-controlled, not federally-controlled. In New York, for example, there are fewer children in school, but 10 percent of them are chareidi children, so the askanim are negotiating from a stronger starting point. Here in the U.K., there are around 14 million children and about 25,000 chareidi children (approximately 10,000 in Stamford Hill and the remainder in Manchester and Gateshead and Northwest London), so understandably we have a weaker case.
In America, the Jewish community is a sizeable six million. Not so here, where it is 250,000, which makes it even more remarkable how the Jewish community punches well above its weight. Other major non-Christian religions are probably 10 times our size, yet we are more effective in representing ourselves.
In the United States, chareidi education is also protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which limits government interference in schools.
Is there any assistance that British Jewry could gain from its American counterparts in askanus strategy?
We might need to consider this in the future. However, at present we have a sympathetic prime minister, notwithstanding the disproportionate secular force. She is a person of faith. What the future will hold is unknown. The government gives us an annual £13 million for school security — not so in America! The government also provides tens of millions every year for buildings and secular education in Jewish schools. Not so in America!
People on the street say that the askanim are too “liberal,” too soft with their approach to dealing with the crisis. Would you know what they are referring to, and if they are correct in their assessment?
The law is not on our side, and particularly in the way it is presently interpreted. If, in any area, I’m not confident we would be successful in challenging the government, I won’t go down that route. [As explained in the extended interview,] the individual right is likely to override any other human right like freedom of religion. After the last few weeks, however, I’m not so sure, but still trying to be optimistic. We might have to reconsider our strategy.
Others complain that there is need for fresh talent in community representation. Is this correct, or is it a case of “older [and] wiser”?
There’s no question about it — both are right. There is a great need and yes, we do need new talent. I can assure you we’d be only too happy to bring along younger askanim to high-level meetings. In Stamford Hill, all the mosdos have just established a new vaad ha’askanim in which three of the five leaders are yungeleit. There needs to be a similar setup in other communities too.
Interview with Rabbi Dov Oppenheimer of Gateshead
Rabbi Oppenheimer has worked closely with Reb Yidel Baumgarten for almost 20 years in his role as an adviser to Menahalim and governors of mosdos in Gateshead and Manchester on compliance issues. More recently, he has worked closely with Mrs. Spitz of Interlink, and with Rabbi Pinter. He has consulted with Rabbi Shimon Winegarten as well as Menahalim and governors of schools in Northwest London.
Is it safe to assume that all Orthodox schools in the country are opposed to the current state of affairs regarding Ofsted inspections?
I would suggest that all chareidi schools are. I do not consider myself qualified to talk about central Orthodox schools, but I don’t personally believe they are of the same opinion as the chareidi schools.
Are the schools in Northern England generally independent or state-aided?
The schools in Gateshead are all independent, and in Manchester most of them are independent.
What standards are independent schools expected to meet?
There is what is known as the Independent School Standards (ISS). These standards were referred to in a recently-circulated letter of Lord Agnew, Minister of State for Education responsible for the school system. The standards are, in the words of Lord Agnew, “minimum standards, deliberately drafted to give schools a significant amount of freedom on how and what they teach.”
Have London mosdos and those of Northern England had different inspection experiences?
Lord Agnew’s letter is very revealing. Although it has been interpreted more as a criticism of some chareidi schools, it makes mention of much positive progress of others. He writes that he is open to suggestions from chareidi leaders as to next steps, which is also encouraging. Although he draws a contrast between what he sees as “Charedi [sic] schools in Gateshead and Manchester … moving to a position where they can meet the standards through changes in their curriculum, teaching practices and policies,” as opposed to mosdos in North London, I believe this to be an oversimplification.
What is the most effective way of tackling the present challenge?
It is essential that we work in a united manner. If we are not seen as working together, the Department for Education is able to use that very fact against us when we try to defend our rights. One of the decisions of the recent meeting in Nottingham was that mosdos should be able to have an experienced representative from a “team of chareidi experts” to assist each of them during inspections.
What else can you tell us about the recent meeting in Nottingham?
… [W]e brought together 15 senior Rabbanim and 15 Menahalim of leading mosdos, representing the chareidi kehillos of North and Northwest London, Manchester and Gateshead to seek common ground and decide how to take positive steps to address the issues. The decision was taken to try as far as possible to achieve unified daas Torah to support the mosdos and give them clear direction on how to effectively be able to cope with Ofsted inspections. A structure for a national vaad with regional constitutive parts is now being finalized.
What has changed over the years in terms of school inspections?
Twenty years ago, there were specialist non-Jewish faith-school inspectors, many of whom were religious themselves and understood Hebrew. The government then went a step further and introduced the concept of Jewish inspectors. This was most conducive to enabling proper account to be taken of the dynamics of our chinuch system. This decision was challenged, however, by the secularist/humanist lobby who saw [this as favoritism]. Jewish inspectors, and indeed specialist religious inspectors of other faiths, were withdrawn.
What is the position today on Ofsted inspections?
Today … the inspections focus on secular aspects of education and hardly take account of the religious ethos, and certainly not of the contribution religious studies make to the general curriculum. …
Although we have tried to challenge this, the response has been that there is a single set of educational standards which must be met notwithstanding our religious requirements. What exacerbates the problem today is that both the Department and Ofsted, in different ways, seem in their strategy and guidance to be constantly seeking to push the boundaries further, trying to enforce unacceptable changes in our chinuch system on the basis of equality, furthering British Values and preparing young people for participation in Modern Britain. This is blatant social engineering, and they do not deny this!
What do we need to do to challenge what is happening?
In response, we need to become much better at presenting our values and approach, based on the Torah, in a much more positive way. And we also need to robustly demonstrate with evidence how the problems of modern education — which is in crisis because of the level of violence, knife crime, lack of respect for teachers and societal norms, drugs and abuse of the internet — hardly exist in our educational system.
Interview with Mr. Shimon Cohen
Shimon Cohen is founder and chairman of The PR Office, a leading public relations agency. He is the Campaign Director of Shechita UK and advises many schools within the kehillah.
What advice do you have for askanim about managing this crisis? What do you think the government wants us to do? Most of the chareidi kehillah are honest and upright people. How do we get the government to see that our education system is successful in producing people who are good British citizens?
The first step is for askanim to get the schools in order. We need to be first rate in things like health and safety, safeguarding and welfare. If there are exposed wires or leaky toilets, then they need to be fixed before we can even have any meaningful conversation about the really challenging issues of the day, like protected characteristics.
Several different organizations currently work separately with the government and Ofsted. Do you think they can be successful, or would it be better to have one organization instead?
Education provision in our kehillah is hugely varied and it is important that each group has a voice. However, we should not be undermining each other’s work, so we need to ensure there is effective communication between all the various bodies. We also need to educate the Department to appreciate that we are not just one community, but a collection of communities, each with its own outlook.
Who do you think are the right sort of people to manage this campaign?
It is vital that we have clear guidance from our Rabbanim and practical input from those askanim who have the day-to-day understanding. However, the messages must be delivered by experienced campaigners.
I know that a lot of what Shechita UK does is behind the scenes, but can you share some of their activities and explain a bit about how it works?
Shechita UK is in regular contact with MPs, ministers and, most importantly, civil servants. It’s not noise that we seek, but influence, so you are right that much of what is done is behind the scenes. We help officials to understand how, for example, a restraining pen meets their requirements or why a proposed regulation may be restrictive to us, and we present our case regularly at committees to help ensure that the shechitah process is understood and respected. It is often about explaining the intricacies rather than trying to change opinion. However, we are told time and time again that our biggest strength is that we talk on shechitah as one group with one voice.
With all these issues — shechitah, milah and education — a lot of bad feeling toward religion and religious people is whipped up by the media. Is there any way we can get better coverage in the national press?
It is not fashionable to be religious in 2018, and many journalists we speak with come with that preconception. Faith needs a better image, but the main thing we need to do is ensure that we are not giving an excuse to write negatively [of us]. We need to be aware of how every statement and decision we make can be perceived to minimize the scrutiny we come under.
The humanists and secular society are also pushing their anti-religious agendas. What do you think is the best way to deal with this?
There are more members of the British Sausage Appreciation Society in the U.K. than there are humanists. Yet the humanists are very well-funded and organized. We need to be just as organized so that we can be effective in our campaigning.
There are schools who seem to cover the National Curriculum fairly well and pass Ofsted inspections. When the law changes, is this likely also to change? Do you think, based on Lord Agnew’s letter, that if the schools comply with the current legislation, that the government will keep pushing for more changes?
I have long argued that we must fix what we can now, particularly in respect to health and safety, well-being and bullying. Let’s be exemplars to Ofsted where we can. Against that backdrop we can then address government from a position of some strength regarding the issues that are raised in the letter. It maybe that Lord Agnew’s letter indicates that the DFE now feels there is a standard which our kehillos can reach. However, we have to ensure that the DFE understands our varied approaches in a constructive and helpful manner.