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Education Matters

UK legislation will require schools to teach sex and relationship education. How will this affect charedi schools?

At first glance, Dayan Krausz’ (the former head of the Manchester Beth Din) declaration that school leaders should rather “give up one’s life” than comply with the UK government’s demand on LGBT education is both shocking and astounding in equal measure. 

This declaration is in response to the long running dispute that the charedi (ultra-Orthodox) leadership have with two pieces of government legislation that apply to all UK schools, including those that are privately funded. The first, the 2014 British values legislation, requiring schools to teach the children tolerance for others, including the “protected characteristics,” which address differences that can lead to discrimination, including age, faith and sexual orientation. It is not enough to teach respect for all, in general terms, rather each characteristic must be explained. The second piece of legislation is the requirement to teach sex and relationship education which will be formally mandated during  2020. Whilst the sex education element has a parent opt-out until age 15 (and a pupil opt-out post age 15), the relationship education element will be compulsory for all. 

Indeed, many other charedi schools have managed to meet the requirements, and despite attempts to find legal loopholes there are suggestions that if the secular education in the school is reasonable then Ofsted won’t probe too hard on this point. Mainstream Orthodox Jewish schools have accepted the legislation, and the Office of the Chief Rabbi has issued guidance in conjunction with Keshet UK for the schools under his aegis.

It’s almost two years since one of the UK’s leading Charedi rabbis, the Gateshead Rav, Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, warned that British Jews were facingpossibly the most serious issuesince Edward I expelled them in 1290. In a recent mind-boggling development, the Chassidic girls school, Beis Trana, has just passed its Ofsted inspection but has issued a letter to parents assuring them that the controversial material was not taught to the girls, and that they have written to Ofsted, asking them to clarify the inappropriate subjects are not taught, even though this would in all likelihood result in the school failing the isnpection for not meeting the independent school standards. Indeed, many other charedi schools have managed to meet the requirements, and despite attempts to find legal loopholes there are suggestions that if the secular education in the school is reasonable then Ofsted won’t probe too hard on this point. Mainstream Orthodox Jewish schools have accepted the legislation, and the Office of the Chief Rabbi has issued guidance in conjunction with Keshet UK for the schools under his aegis. Given that the compulsory “problematic” education is about respect for others and relationship education with the sex education remaining optional (in private schools), the requirement for school leaders to give up their lives seems astounding. However, perhaps there is more going on here. 

A recent letter in the Jewish Tribune (18th Sept) Rabbi Dagul of Gateshead states: 

there never was, and must never be, any form of education for children to “choose” another lifestyle or belief. Other lifestyles and beliefs are spiritual poison for Jewish people. Advocating the opportunity to choose such lifestyles is worse than educating children to be allowed to “choose” to take dangerous drugs”.  

On reflection, it seems that the voiced concerns are only tangentially about LGBT issues. Even though there are likely to be some LGBT children in charedi schools, Dayan Krausz is concerned for all the children, not just the minority who will come to realise they have LGBT identities. The charedi leadership have learned that opposing LGBT education is a cause shared by other conservative faith communities and this enables them to gather far wider support, like the Values Foundation advocacy organisation, which incorporates Christian leaders. And it’s also a cause shared by conservative Muslims.

The real concern here is that if girls in charedi schools are taught concepts such as autonomy and consent around relationships, and that there are additional education options for them other than enrolling in seminaries at 16 (rather than pursuing the 3 A levels that are required for UK university admission), marrying a stranger (they met once or twice) at age 18, whilst submitting sexually to someone they may not be attracted to, or have little in common with, then they may well choose other paths in life. 

Providing a comprehensive education to charedi girls has to extend beyond the heavily redacted, limited curriculums on offer, and should include relationship education, as well as the opportunity to integrate into the wider community.

It’s sad that Dayan Krausz and Rabbi Dagul have so little confidence in their own lifestyle that they believe that the only way to ensure the next generation follow a charedi lifestyle is to keep them ignorant of all other options. Given the rhetoric of the ongoing debate it’s clear that their views are widely shared in the charedi community. Providing a comprehensive education to charedi girls has to extend beyond the heavily redacted, limited curriculums on offer, and should include relationship education, as well as the opportunity to integrate into the wider community. The charedi boys fare worse still, some have no secular education at all. But, there is no existential threat, Orthodox Judaism is sustainable with a Torah Im Derech Eretz outlook. Suggestions to “give up one’s life” are unnecessary and inflammatory, especially because the educational matters at hand can actually make a difference between life and death. 

Eve Sacks is a member of the board of trustees for JOFA UK.

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