Jewish schools may exit state sector in faith row

25th April 2014 at 01:00
Rulings on evolution and exams are an `attack' on choice, they say

High-performing Jewish schools have warned that they may withdraw from the state sector because of a growing row over religious freedom and claims that they are being forced to teach against their beliefs.

The dispute follows moves to compel all schools to teach children about evolution and a ruling that science exams cannot be altered to bring them in line with religious faith.

Exam regulator Ofqual imposed the ban on redacting questions last month after it emerged that a Jewish state school in London had blacked out parts of GCSE science papers. State primary schools in England have been informed that the teaching of evolution will be compulsory from September under the new national curriculum.

The National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools (Najos), which represents 20 of 43 state-funded Jewish schools, claimed that the changes posed a threat to its institutions. Two-thirds of its state school members are primaries.

"We fear the day that the high-performing orthodox Jewish schools will have to withdraw from the state-maintained sector, in order to safeguard the wishes of parents to protect their children from exposure to subjects that run counter to core religious beliefs," said Najos executive director Jonathan Rabson. "Young children can be confused when they are taught things that are different to what they learn at home."

Mr Rabson said the schools hoped to reach an "understanding" with the government but "the last resort would be to move out of the state sector into the independent sector, where you have complete ownership over what you deliver". Schools and parents were united in their concern about the changes, he added.

The Ofqual ruling was a "direct attack on parental choice", he said, adding that Najos was strongly opposed to the national curriculum requirement to teach evolution because it "runs counter to strictly Orthodox Jewish teachings and challenges core principles of the religion for thousands of years".

"We believe there are people out there who want to threaten the whole notion of faith schools and we feel threatened by the wider discourse that faith schools are places of extremism, which they are not," Mr Rabson said.

Earlier this year, Professor Alice Roberts, president of the Association for Science Education, called for rules banning state schools from teaching creationism in science to be extended to the private sector to avoid "indoctrination".

The debate over faith in state schools has become increasingly heated in recent weeks, with investigations ongoing into the alleged "Islamification" of 25 secular schools in Birmingham by Muslim hardliners.

Ofqual banned the redaction of GCSE and A-level papers after Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Stamford Hill, North London, was found to have censored 52 test papers in two separate exams last year. An undisclosed number of other schools are also understood to have blacked out parts of exam papers.

The regulator said that schools found to have tampered with exam papers would be guilty of "malpractice" and could be barred from holding public exams.

Mr Rabson said the British Humanist Association had put pressure on Ofqual to change its guidance, which raised questions about the effect of lobbying by anti-faith organisations.

Richy Thompson, education officer at the association, responded that it was "disappointing" that Najos "appears to be acting not in the best interests of the children at their school but in the interests of narrow religious beliefs".

Successive governments have supported the expansion of faith schools, with the free school programme allowing for growth in the number of "minority" faith schools run by Jewish, Muslim and Sikh groups.

Michael Cohen, an educational consultant for Jewish schools, said the conflict over redaction could have been resolved if Ofqual, exam boards and Jewish organisations had met before the ban was imposed. He said the issue had been handled "a bit like a bull in a China shop".

Steve Langford, headteacher of King David, a state-funded Jewish primary in Birmingham, said the school had not discussed going private but had "concerns" about the mandatory teaching of evolution. "The head of RE has asked for the matter to be discussed at the next meeting of the governing body," he added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Teaching creationism as science is incompatible with the delivery of a broad and balanced curriculum. However, Jewish schools are free to discuss it in other areas such as religious studies classes."

A secular stand

Debates over the extent to which faith should play a role in state schools have been increasing in intensity around the world.

In the US, the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organisation, has warned of the challenges it encounters while fighting to keep evolution on the syllabus.

In France, the government has introduced a "secularism charter" to encourage schools to reconfirm their secular values.

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