Why we need sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion too

The chief rea­son for poverty among Charedim is lack of ed­u­ca­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS - GE­OF­FREY AL­DER­MAN

In their JC re­port (Jan­uary 12) into lev­els of poverty within Bri­tain’s Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, Rachel Fletcher and Nathan Jeffay high­lighted the se­ri­ous is­sues of low in­come and hous­ing short­ages af­fect­ing the ul­tra-Ortho­dox. In Hack­ney (as I know from per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion), Charedim are to be found liv­ing in sub-stan­dard hous­ing char­ac­terised by in­ad­e­quate san­i­ta­tion, damp, ver­min and of­ten ap­palling over­crowd­ing. The fact that the state has to­wards all such fam­i­lies obli­ga­tions that it is clearly fail­ing to meet can­not ex­on­er­ate us — the Jews — from ful­fill­ing our own obli­ga­tions. But how we might go about this is not as sim­ple as it might seem.

Mere char­ity is cer­tainly not the an­swer. Af­ter read­ing the JC re­port, I set about think­ing what the long-term so­lu­tion might be. As I did so, I pe­rused the latest sec­ondary-school “Achieve­ment and At­tain­ment” ta­bles pub­lished by the DfES ear­lier this month. There, star­ing me in the face, was part, at any rate, of what this long-term so­lu­tion might be. But there, also star­ing me in the face, was yet an­other as­pect of the prob­lem. Poverty among Charedim de­rives from a variety of causes. Chief amongst th­ese is lack of ed­u­ca­tion — by which I mean, the lack of that ed­u­ca­tion that will en­able Charedi fam­ily bread-win­ners to earn de­cent in­comes and live in rea­son­able con­di­tions.

The ed­u­ca­tion I am re­fer­ring to is, of course, sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion, a con­cept that far too many Charedim treat as some­thing ap­proach­ing a fate worse than death. The latest DfES league ta­bles re­veal a re­mark­able di­vide. As Si­mon Rocker’s anal­y­sis in last week’s JC demon­strated, whilst some strictly Ortho­dox schools are do­ing very well in­deed in terms of GCSE at­tain­ment (and all credit to them), most are not do­ing well at all, and some have lev­els of GCSE per­for­mance that are, frankly, dis­grace­ful.

The di­rec­tor of the Jewish Agency for Ed­u­ca­tion, Si­mon Goulden, is quoted as say­ing: “No mat­ter how you cut it, Jewish sec­ondary schools do ex­cep­tion­ally well.” Sorry, Si­mon. They don’t. No mat­ter how you “cut it”.

Of the 27 Ortho­dox schools fea­tured in the league ta­bles, ap­par­ently fewer than a third man­aged to en­able their pupils to achieve aca­demic progress above the na­tional av­er­age. In some Ortho­dox schools, pupils seem to be tak­ing few if any sub­jects at GCSE level. At the Gateshead Jewish Board­ing School, for in­stance, only three per cent of pupils (ac­cord­ing to the DfES web­site) seem to have at­tained five GCSEs, in­clud­ing English and math­e­mat­ics. In­ci­den­tally, this school has a tru­ancy rate of 3.4 per cent, which, when you think about it, is re­mark­able for an ul­tra-Ortho­dox board­ing es­tab­lish­ment. At the Beis Rochel d’Sat­mar girls’ school (Hack­ney), no pupil at­tained five GCSEs, in­clud­ing English and maths. The same was true of the Ye­sodey Hato­rah boys’ school (also Hack­ney), where only seven boys were even in the GCSE year.

But the league ta­bles do not tell the whole story. What­ever the de­mands of the na­tional cur­ricu­lum, the more Ortho­dox the school, the less time is — in prac­tice — de­voted to “sec­u­lar” sub­jects. One of the best kept se­crets within the Charedi world are the so-called “se­cret schools” — es­tab­lish­ments that op­er­ate clan­des­tinely, be­yond state in­spec­tion. When the school at­ten­dance of­fi­cer calls to ask his par­ents why young Moishe isn’t at­tend­ing a recog­nised sec­ondary school, the an­swer is given that young Moishe has been sent abroad for his ed­u­ca­tion. But he hasn’t. He is in fact at­tend­ing a se­cret school, some­where in Eng­land, where most of the days and some of the nights are de­voted to re­li­gious study, and where there is lit­tle, if any, sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion, which is re­garded as a bitul zman — a waste of time.

But the sit­u­a­tion in some sec­tions of the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties is even worse than this.

In cer­tain Charedi cir­cles, it is the norm that hus­bands will spend their time in re­li­gious study whilst their wives take on the role of bread-win­ners. This is all well and good, pro­vided the wives pos­sess ap­pro­pri­ate vo­ca­tional skills. If they have no ba­sic pro­fi­ciency in English and Maths, it is dif­fi­cult to en­vis­age what vo­ca­tions they might pur­sue. And we should note that there are signs of a back­lash against any sec­u­lar ed­u­ca­tion for ul­tra-Ortho­dox women. Some weeks ago, in a move that has caused con­ster­na­tion bor­der­ing on panic — and which is sure to af­fect cer­tain sec­tions of Bri­tish Jewry — a panel of rab­bis rep­re­sent­ing Charedi com­mu­ni­ties in Is­rael banned its wom­en­folk for pur­su­ing sec­u­lar “con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion” (what we would call post-Alevel stud­ies) on the grounds that they, the rab­bis, could not con­trol the con­tent of such ed­u­ca­tion.

With­out any means of earn­ing parnos­soh — a liveli­hood — is it any won­der that such fam­i­lies end up liv­ing in slums?

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