U.K. chareidi school leaders expressed initial cautious optimism about the new regulations and guidance for teaching about relationships in schools, presented by Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds to the House of Commons on Monday. The regulations and guidance, which have now been published, will be debated in Parliament in the spring, and if accepted will come into force from September 2020.
Jewish schools and the chareidi public had feared that their existing struggles would be significantly exacerbated by a whole new set of compulsory teachings about relationships. However, leaders of Chinuch UK, the umbrella body for the majority of chareidi schools in Britain, caution that major issues for chareidi schools remain unresolved, including the controversial requirement to teach about each of the “protected characteristics” of the Equalities Act 2010 and how the schools inspectorate Ofsted interprets the requirement to prepare pupils for “life in modern Britain.” It also remains to be seen how Ofsted interprets the RSE requirements.
“The Government has clearly taken on board the concerns of many groups with opposing views,” said Dr. David Landau for Chinuch UK. “The Government has focused on safeguarding children rather than on balancing opposing rights. As a result, each school will be able to agree with its parent body what is appropriate for the children in that school. That is enormously reassuring for our kehillah.”
According to the guidance, parents will play a key role in deciding how their children are taught about relationships, and each school’s curriculum will be expected to reflect what its own parent body believes is appropriate. The guidance is broad enough to accommodate different approaches. The teaching of various topics that schools, parents and Rabbanim had feared would be compulsory will in fact be open to schools to determine in accordance with parents’ views.
Even for older pupils, parents will have the right to withdraw their children from teachings that they feel are inappropriate given their age and religious upbringing.
Initially, it seemed, based on the kehillah’s expectations and a casual reading, that many of the problems currently experienced by chareidi schools in this area of teaching would be solved by the flexibility given to schools and their parent body.
However, a closer reading seemed to suggest that perhaps the situation was not as good as was originally thought, eliciting a wider range of responses.
TEC (Torah Education Committee), a coalition representing independent Orthodox Jewish schools, aims to strengthen and defend Torah education in the U.K. The committee represents a significant number of students, and advocates on behalf of the schools to ensure the safeguarding of traditional Jewish education in the U.K. They issued the following statement:
“The guidance will take some time to digest. We are, however, encouraged by the Government’s commitment that these matters will not have to be addressed at primary level and that at secondary level, a right to withdraw remains, with headteachers empowered to discern how these issues are addressed.
“In particular, the crucial recognition that parents are the primary teachers of their children will help to ensure that their wishes are respected. We appreciate the time and effort the Government and senior officials have taken to consult with the Jewish community on this sensitive subject.
“We remain wary that Ofsted will maintain the responsibility to police the implementation of the guidelines, and we will remain alert to their active role in promoting and advancing lifestyles that go against traditional Torah teachings. Much remains to be done.”
Prior to the guidelines being released, Mr. Andrew Cohen, president of the Federation of Synagogues, wrote to Mr. Hinds, urging him to continue to engage with Chinuch UK “to safeguard the traditional, tried and tested approach that … parents take and demand from the schools to which they entrust their children’s education.”
He pointed out that “The fundamental British values of decency, integrity, democracy and tolerance … are all integral parts of chareidi Jewish education.”
A communal askan added, “As ever, this seems to be the key — to what extent these fundamental British values are extended towards the chareidi kehillah. We can only wait and see, placing our trust in Avinu shebaShamayim, that we will be able to continue to educate our children al pi taharas hakodesh.”