Private Orthodox Jewish faith schools have faced scrutiny in recent months after reports that up to 1,000 boys are being educated illegally in unregistered schools. In a climate of increasing regulation of faith schools, including Muslim madrassas, inspectors have warned that children in some private faith schools are not being taught a broad-based curriculum.
These headlines focus on a few unregistered, illegal schools – but these represent an extremely small minority of schools with a religious character in the UK.
While church schools make up the overwhelming majority of schools with a religious character in the UK, Judaism has the highest proportion of faith school places to population of adherents in England.
The classification of Jewish schools in England is complex, with each school varying in religious character and ethos. A broad distinction can be made between “mainstream” and “strictly Orthodox” Jewish schools. Strictly Orthodox schools have a stronger religious ethos due to the rabbinical authority that oversees them, and the religious communities from which their students originate.
There has been significant growth in demand and provision of state-funded Jewish schools in urban areas, where there is a substantial Jewish community. The number of Jewish children attending Jewish schools doubled between the 1970s and 2008, according to the Jewish Leadership Council. Some researchers have argued that this growth is driven by fears of assimilation and the desire of Jewish families to counteract the harmful influences of wider society on their children.
Advocates of Jewish schools celebrate the higher quality of general education provided compared to other state-funded schools which is demonstrated by the good performance of Jewish schools in examination-based league tables.
But state-funded religious education remains controversial. Opponents argue that faith-based education is unfair and increases segregation and division in society along religious lines. While those in defence of state-funded faith schools argue that they meet the needs of religious minorities and are an essential right of parents in a liberal democracy. They preserve their traditions in an otherwise largely secular society, at odds with their distinct religious values.
Life in a non-Jewish school
Studies suggest that Jewish schools can have a significant effect on forming Jewish identity. But analyses of the experiences of Jewish students in non-Jewish schools is also a good way to begin understanding why faith schools are so popular.
I conducted a small-scale interview study exploring the experiences of 28 Jewish students who went to a range of non-Jewish secondary-schools. Those who went to non-Jewish private or state-funded schools could find their schools challenging, reporting concerns such as incidents of anti-Semitic abuse or the school calendar clashing with Jewish holy days.
I found some of the reported experiences of the participants truly shocking, such as the word “Jew” reported as being commonly used by non-Jewish peers as an insult. This was a small-scale study so we do not know how prevalent these kinds of behaviours are but it’s important to note that some of the students reported being extremely happy in their non-Jewish schools despite also reporting challenges.
Such issues can be considered as “push” factors for the popularity of state-funded Jewish schools. “Pull” factors include provision for Jewish cultural activities and customs, and a school community that is more likely to foster the Jewish values and cultural knowledge of the student.
Yet the relationship between a Jewish faith school’s ethos and those of the families of its students can also be complex. One academic case study of a Jewish secondary school in England showed that students and parents may understand their Jewish identity quite differently from the school leadership.
Jewish identity is sometimes explained as a reference to a shared history rather than a religious classification. It is because of this complexity of Jewish identity that the decision to send children to a particular school may not be for religious reasons. This nuance in the reasoning behind parents and students choosing a faith school may be overlooked by those who oppose faith schools on the grounds that they indoctrinate students by forcing irrational beliefs on them.
Some Jews believe they are better prepared to live in a multicultural or multi-religious society by attending non-Jewish schools, and that by doing so, they also help non-Jewish young people learn about Jewish culture. The problem is that with fewer Jewish students attending non-Jewish schools, it makes those Jews who do attend those schools much more likely to be a small minority among their peer group – with all the implications that may entail.