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Hackney Council slams Government for ‘woefully inadequate’ efforts on illegal religious schools

Concerns raised about the safety, wellbeing, and education of children trapped within unregistered religious schools in Hackney have been ignored by the Department for Education, Hackney Council has claimed. In a report out today, Hackney’s Children and Young People Scrutiny Commission stated that it is ‘baffled by an apparent lack of desire on the part of the Government to rectify the situation’, describing the current legislation in respect of unregistered settings as ‘woefully inadequate’.

Humanists UK leads the national campaign for action on illegal religious schools, having pushed the issue up the political agenda by working with former pupils of the schools who have left the community as well as parents still trapped inside. It responded to the Commission’s call for evidence and facilitated meetings between the Commission and former pupils. Today it has supported the report’s recommendations whilst emphasising the lack of choice that parents within Hackney’s Charedi community have over their children’s education as a result of the control exercised by community leaders.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman commented, ‘In our evidence to Hackney’s inquiry we set out the evidence demonstrating that the children trapped within illegal religious schools are being indoctrinated, denied a basic education, and very often abused. We also explained the loopholes, left open by government for decades, that have allowed these settings to continue operating even after they are identified. We’re glad that both of these observations have been reflected in the Commission’s report, and we urge the Department for Education to take forward its recommendation for legislative reform. The safety, wellbeing, and development of thousands of children depend on it.’

Report summary

The new report follows an extensive inquiry carried out by the Commission throughout 2017, precipitated by significant media attention that ‘questioned the safety, safeguarding and the quality of education provided in allegedly unregistered educational settings (e.g. a Yeshiva) in the borough’. The vast majority of this media coverage was generated by Humanists UK, which has worked with former pupils of these settings in recent years to highlight their experiences and lobby for reform. Noting that there are as many as 1,500 boys attending illegal Charedi schools in Hackney alone, the report states nonetheless that the Government ‘has shown a lack of willingness to engage with the serious nature of this issue and its potential consequences’:

‘Despite repeatedly having been told by safeguarding and other professionals dealing with this issue that they have no legal “clear line of sight” on children within these settings, the Department of Education has indicated that it has no plans to legislate in the current legislative cycle. We find this unacceptable and if a case of serious abuse were to be revealed in one of these settings we would consider that the Department of Education would have serious questions to answer.’

In light of the findings of the inquiry, the Commission has made the following three key recommendations aimed at solving the problem:

  • the Council should develop and publish a strategy that sets out its approach to unregistered education settings in the borough, including clear plans for joint working with Ofsted, the Department for Education, and the community itself on promoting safeguarding, quality of education, and compliance with the law
  • the Charedi community must engage with Hackney Council, particularly its Safeguarding Children Board, to establish a safeguarding process for unregistered schools, agreeing key milestones and outcomes for compliance
  • ‘as a matter of urgency’, the Government ‘should review its legislative timetable and produce a statement of intent about how it plans to close the evident legal loopholes that allow unregistered educational settings to operate with impunity.’

More specifically, the Commission has called for legislative change in two key areas. First, for the introduction of a legal requirement for parents to notify the council if their child is being home educated. And second for an extension of the definition of a school to include settings where only religious studies are taught and where this is a children’s main education experience. Humanists UK has been calling on the Government to introduce these changes for some time, and made similar recommendations in its evidence to the Commission’s inquiry.

Reaction of Charedi parents

However, whilst broadly welcoming the report’s findings, Humanists UK has criticised the report for accepting the narrative of some community leaders that parents are responsible for ‘seek[ing] an education pathway for boys which is outside of a registered setting’. In reality, the education of children within the Charedi community is dictated predominantly by community leaders and Rabbis, with parents put under considerable pressure or threat to comply.

One Charedi parent in Hackney, whose son is attending an unregistered school this year and has asked to remain anonymous, commented:

‘As a Charedi family living in Stamford Hill, we have to send our sons to the [unregistered] Yeshive aligned with our sect. As a family we simply don’t have a choice or other options, and we’d be shunned by our wider family and the synagogue if we disagreed. I didn’t even know what choice was out there because the Rabbis are so controlling over what information we can access. No internet, no proper contact outside our community. Of course I want a better education for my children, but even asking after this would have dire consequences’.

Humanists UK has called on the Council to clarify its remarks and explore ways of working directly with parents rather than through community leaders alone.

Notes

For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3072.

The report has been published today in draft form for final approval by the Commission in its meeting on the 15th. Read the Commission’s full report:  http://mginternet.hackney.gov.uk/documents/s58810/FINAL%20UES%20for%20PUBLICATION.pdf

Read Humanists UK’s response to the Commission’s inquiry: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/20170315-Final-BHA-response-to-Hackney-Council-consultation.pdf

Read Humanists UK’s news item ‘Humanists UK reveals illegal Jewish school allowed to stay open for years despite repeated Ofsted warnings’: https://humanism.org.uk/2016/01/15/bha-reveals-illegal-jewish-school-allowed-to-stay-open-for-years-despite-repeated-ofsted-warnings/

Read more about Humanists UK’s work on religious schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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