Why we need secular education too
The chief reason for poverty among Charedim is lack of education
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?