‘No real progress’ in Hackney Council campaign to ensure Jewish faith schools become registered

Hackney Town Hall. Picture: Ken Mears

Hackney Town Hall. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Children attending unregistered Jewish faith schools will continue to be exposed to an “unacceptable” lack of safeguarding until the government changes the definition of a school, say frustrated council bosses.

The town hall says "no real progress" has been made since it launched an Unregistered Educational Settings (UES) strategy twpo years ago aiming to ensure all schools in Hackney are registered.

Bosses have put it down to there being no regulation framework, and the lack of a central organisation with authority over yeshivas, which offer religious teaching to more than 1,500 boys within the Charedi orthodox Jewish community.

In early 2018 the children and young people's scrutiny commission launched an investigation into unregistered schools due to concerns over safeguarding, the narrow educational focus of yeshivas and insufficient interaction with education and safeguarding experts.

The commission said there would be a "significant benefit" for the Charedi community if English, maths and STEM subjects were taught in parallel with religious studies.

At the time rabbi Judah Baumgarten, chair of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations's education committee, argued the majority of children leaving yeshivas in the borough were "extremely successful" and said an attempt to change the law over unregistered settings was "not the solution".

Stamford Hill West Conservative councillor Aron Klein has also taken issue with the council's efforts to regulate the schools.

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He told the Gazette this week: "I have been living in Hackney since 1985. I never saw a police car outside a yeshiva, never seen or heard yeshiva boys or girls committing any crime, drug deals, stabbing, shoplifting or truancy. Why have Ofsted in there?

"Parents and staff are constantly checking the premises, no one wants any pupils to get ill or injured. Why pay tax for Ofsted?"

The council has tried enforcing by way of health and safety issues at the unregistered schools with "limited success".

Officers said the position was summed up by Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman in October when she said: "We can issue a warning notice, but no one has the power to close them, neither us, local authorities or, Department for Education.

"There is no general power to close something that is not registered as a school. We need a better definition of a school - it is too easy to fiddle at the margins and claim that something isn't a school. There should be somebody with powers to make it close.

"There should be serious consideration of disqualifying people who've run an illegal school. The legal framework needs to evolve."

The council said there had been "repeated attempts" to engage community leaders in Stamford Hill, but they had been "unable, unwilling or lack the authority to commit to the changes required".

"Large numbers of local children continue to attend yeshivas and, therefore, remain outside the line of sight of safeguarding professionals. The safeguarding partnership has no direct mechanism by which to exercise oversight to ensure these premises - and the children who congregate within them - are safe; that the infrastructure is sound; the environment appropriate."

Early last year the City & Hackney Safeguarding Children Board met community leaders, who were said to be positive about creating a safeguarding commitment.

However, some have now "retreated" to a position where they say they will only do so if yeshivas remain exempt from the national curriculum.

The CHSCB maintains "this matter can only be resolved" through new government legislation giving councils the power to designate what qualifies as a school.

The board said: "Without any movement in this regard by the government, the [chair's] view remains unchanged: that children and young people will continue to be exposed to a two-tier safeguarding system that is simply unacceptable."

A government consultation regarding children not in school took place last spring, though none of the proposals addressed the absence of regulation for unregistered settings.

Hackney mayor Phil Glanville will write again to the government calling for effective framework allowing the council to take action.