“The whole system works like a trap. They just trap you from when you’re born to when you die.”
That was the damning indictment of one former pupil of Talmud Torah Tashbar, a Jewish ultra-Orthodox primary school in north-east London’s Stamford Hill neighborhood, which the government has ordered closed this month for failing to meet minimum standards.
Another former student, who also asked to remain anonymous, described his time at the school as “to all intents and purposes a form of child neglect or child abuse."
He told the British Humanist Association, a secular lobby group, that he “grew up without very basic skills, basic English, basic maths.”
It was a Freedom of Information request made by the BHA, which is opposed to faith schools in general, that led to the school’s practices being revealed.
Jay Harman of the BHA said that the conditions at the school, where lessons were not taught in English but in Yiddish as a matter of religious principle, were just the tip of the iceberg.
He said that some estimates put the number of young boys slipping through the net in Hackney alone, the London borough home to Stamford Hill, as up to 2,000. There might be as many as 35 Haredi schools operating outside the law around the country, with some 5,000 boys affected, he added.
Tashbar had been operating without registration for 40 years.
“The Government has been hesitant [to act] for lots of reasons,” said Harman. “The excuse they often use is that shutting these schools would only force them further underground, and at least now they know where the kids are. This, of course, is illogical and shows a complete disregard for the lives of the children within schools.
"There's also lobbying from certain sections of the strictly Orthodox Jewish community, buck-passing between DfE (the Department for Education) and Hackney council, and of course the schools are quite good, to varying degrees, at keeping themselves secret," Harman added.
However, others within the community dispute the extent of the problem, arguing that while some such schools might be unfashionably conservative, their ethos was benign.
“I know some children who went to the school (Tashbar) the kids are nice and in a certain segment of the community, parents want children to learn in an environment with no secular academic studies,” said Rabbi Herschel Gluck, a communal leader in Stamford Hill and a well-known interfaith activist. “They are not part of the general educational system but there is nothing untoward about them.”
Some community leaders fear that strictly Orthodox Jewish schools are falling victim to a new mood in the British educational system, where “countering violent extremism” has become the current watchword.
In an attempt to pretend that Muslim schools were not their primary focus, Gluck argued, the government is pursuing cases against Jewish schools that, while outside the mainstream, are largely benign.
“It has become fashionable to show even-handedness,” said Gluck.
“The vast majority of the Muslim community are decent, good people, just as in the Jewish community,” he continued. “The government is using too broad a brush and playing to the gallery instead of targeting the real problems of extremism, which in turn leads to terrorism.”
“The Government have decided that they must counter violent extremism [in non-Haredi settings],” agreed a spokesman for Gesher EU, a charity helping those who leave the Haredi community and which supported the Tashbar closure. “And they can’t be seen to look at one religion and not another. They have known about this problem for a long time but they probably didn’t know how to handle it tactfully.”
On January 19, the government revealed new measures to counter extremism. Ofsted, the government's school inspection agency, was given more power to prosecute illegal, unregistered schools and a new 'Educate Against Hate' website was launched.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Britain's chief inspector of schools, has expressed “continuing concern” about the safety of children being educated in unregistered schools.
Late last year, inspectors identified 18 schools operating outside the law which they said were of concern.
Wilshaw highlighted three inspections of schools in the Midlands city of Birmingham that had proved extremely concerning. Although he did not identify the schools, he described hazardous conditions including “a narrow Islamic-focused curriculum inappropriate books and other texts including misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material.”
Ensuring that all schools “promote British values” was being seriously undermined by such establishments, he added.
Similar concerns were raised about Talmud Torah Tashbar, which inspectors said had a curriculum which encouraged “cultural and ethnic insularity because it is so narrow and almost exclusively rooted in the study of the Torah.”
The school was found to “severely restrict the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” of its 200 pupils, which prevented them from “developing a wider, deeper understanding of different faiths, communities, cultures and lifestyles, including those of England.”
The case of Tashbar was far from the first time the issue of extremism in strictly Orthodox Jewish schools in the U.K. has hit the headlines.
Last year, there was an uproar after it emerged that two institutions run by the Belz Hasidic sect, also in Stamford Hill, banned mothers of students from driving their children to school.
The ban was revoked after the government pointed out that it was illegal.
Confusingly, the schools were otherwise doing quite well when it came to integration. School inspectors had found that conditions there helped pupils “to blossom into caring, considerate young citizens who behave extremely well and display exemplary British values.”
There seems to be something of a disconnect between teaching such values and providing a decent secular education. Rather than any danger of extremism, the primary risk to graduates of some sections of the ultra-Orthodox school system is an inability to cope with the wider society, according to the Gesher spokesman.
“One of the biggest problems for those who have left the Haredi world is that they can’t get jobs because they haven’t got an education,” he said. “Never mind tertiary education, a lot of young men don’t even have one GCSE and their primary education is woefully inadequate. Lots of boys are brought up speaking Yiddish, they can read Yiddish and biblical Hebrew but their spoken English is very poor and their written English even worse. For many boys, any secular education that they did get will have finished at 12 or 13 when they enter Yeshivah.”
The Anglo-Jewish mainstream has tended to distance itself from the recent controversies surrounding Haredi schools. Observers say there is a sense of embarrassment over appearing too close to the ultra-Orthodox, with their outlandish dress and apparent disinterest in integration.
However, one source within the Haredi community warned that Jews in general stood to lose from what he called “a lurch to populism.”
“One has to be very careful, there are various extremist politicians making statements and some Jews feel afraid of a Muslim takeover of Europe and feel these people are on their side and so they are protected from the storm,” he said.
But that is an illusion, he continued.
“Sadly, even though people in the Jewish community are cheering on those pursuing Muslim schools and institutions, there are those who will utilize this new spirit to go after things that are very dear to the Jewish community like kosher slaughtering of animals and circumcision.”