Ten years ago, secular education in the typical Chassidic boys school (cheder) in Stamford Hill looked very much like it was: a joke. Textbooks were outdated and motheaten, curriculums and syllabuses were non-existent, and the words ‘lesson plan’ were never so much as uttered. Six years ago, however, the authorities in England reversed their decades-old policy of turning a blind eye to the farcical state of secular education in chedarim and began failing schools left, right, and centre. Despite the occasional rhetoric of resistance that emanated from some sectors of the community (facilitated, to some extent, by the ongoing intransigence of the government in enforcing every jot and tittle of the Equalities Act ), the vast majority of schools have quietly acceded to OFSTED’s core demand and ploughed an unprecedented amount of money into improving limmudei Chol. This money has been spent on the newest textbooks, online tracking systems, doubling teacher salaries and a small army of educational consultants brought in to take these schools into the 21st century. The actual improvements in the end product, however, have been minimal at best.
Five years ago, I believed that raising educational standards in our schools was a fundamentally straightforward task: with proper funding, professionalism, and hard work there seemed no obvious reason why we couldn’t meet basic standards in the core subjects. I’ve learned a lot of painful lessons since then, but I believe that most people both inside and outside the community still lack an appreciation of the real obstacles to change within heimishe schools. In the United States, pressure from governmental authorities and Charedi parents for better secular education may soon result in efforts to reform Chol departments, but the results will almost certainly be just as lacklustre as those in the UK. Without raising awareness of what really stands in the way of effective reform, the next decade will be wasted with more and more money producing fewer and fewer results and mounting frustration on all sides. In this article, I want to discuss a problem that affects every single boys’ school in our community and which has been for me personally the single most difficult and persistent problem: recruitment of teachers.
The problem of finding teachers who are capable of delivering the core curriculum can be best understood in terms of a combination of two factors that, put together, eliminate just about every potential candidate for the job. The first of these is that, while salaries have ballooned over the past few years, teaching English and Maths in a Cheder is very much a part time position. No school can offer more than a few hours a day of teaching time, and even candidates who are willing to drive from school to school are limited by the fact that no Cheder has Chol in the mornings and only one or two are willing to move it any earlier than 2 O’clock. This automatically eliminates the vast majority of professional, qualified teachers for whom teaching is a full-time career.
The second factor is that recruitment for teachers in heimishe schools has been and will continue to come almost exclusively from orthodox Jews who have some familiarity with ‘black hat’ culture. Even modern orthodox Jews find the maze of taboos and quirks involved in navigating a Charedi institution too bewildering to contemplate. There is a large ‘centrist orthodox’ community in Manchester and London with a strong Charedi influence, but it mostly consists of reasonably well-off professionals and the proportion of them looking for an afternoon job standing in front of twitchy nine-year olds is vanishingly small. When we exclude from this pool those who are temperamentally or otherwise unsuitable for teaching, there are simply not enough people willing to do the job, even for upwards of £30 per hour.
This is not a new problem, but it is one that is actually getting worse. Traditionally, the secular studies departments of heimishe schools have been staffed by a small group of individuals who worked at two or more schools. This group consisted of people from old fashioned Yekke or Hungarian Jewish communities that have since been absorbed into the Litvish-Chassidish duopoly and people who received a secular education before becoming Charedi. These teachers were not given the resources or backing they needed to do an effective job, but at least pupils benefitted from spending an hour or so a day in the presence of someone who was well read, knew what a Pythagorean triangle was, and could use a comma. However, though the number of Charedi schools relying on these characters has grown steadily, their numbers have not been replenished, and in recent years they are becoming something of an endangered species.
The final result of this dynamic of increasing demand and dwindling supply is that heimishe schools have become increasingly reliant on a new breed of part-time teachers from within the community. This has generally resulted in improved standards of classroom management and made life less of a headache for beleaguered headteachers, but educationally it has been a disaster. Absurd as it may sound, right now there are lesson plans on fronted adverbials or free verse drawn up by highly paid consultants being delivered by Yiddish speaking Israeli immigrants who want a bit of extra cash to supplement their other incomes and might try and employ their broken English if they think someone is watching.
Simply put, so long as the problems with teacher recruitment continue, and indeed become ever more acute, the money being spent on updating secular studies departments would more profitably be spent on days out to the zoo. Campaigners for better education in Charedi schools won’t get anywhere unless they come up with a practical solution to this problem.
As it happens, however, I actually do have a solution. Without spending a penny on recruitment agencies or market research, I have identified literally hundreds of excellent teachers who combine classroom experience and behaviour management with a full understanding of all elements of the primary curriculum. These teachers all live within easy commuting distance and have an intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of Charedi culture. The cherry on the cake is that they have demonstrated a willingness to work for less than half the wage offered by the typical cheder.
There’s only one problem: they’re women.
I believe that it is now generally known that Charedim, unlike other hyper-traditional cultures, give a better secular education to girls than boys. What is not often appreciated, however, is just how big the gap is. The level of literacy and numeracy in heimishe boys’ schools isn’t just below average, it’s terrible, and the quality in girls’ schools isn’t just OK, it’s great. People may quibble with the breadth or depth of education in secondary girls’ schools, though their GCSE results are consistently impressive, but only the most intolerant and hostile ‘liberal’ could possibly have a problem with their primary education. The system works and it works because of the huge number of young Charedi women who choose to take up teaching as a career that is compatible with their lifestyle. The surplus of these teachers is such that a boys’ school could easily poach the most talented and hard-working at a fraction of their current pay scale.
I have raised this issue with dozens of people and am familiar with the objections, but the fact is that this is not a hypothetical solution: the two heimishe boys’ schools in Stamford Hill that provide a decent secular education already employ female teachers. The reason they can do this is not because they are any less principled, but because they are not attached to the brand of a specific chassidus and base their decisions on independent halachic authorities, such as R’ Yossel Padwa who each year permits Talmud Torah London to hire female teachers. The resistance in the larger established chedarim is partly based on logistical issues (which are real enough but can be solved with a fraction of the money such a measure would save in the medium to long term) but mostly comes down to vague non-halachic concerns about the culture of the school.
What this really means in practice is that every chassidus has a certain proportion of extremists who would react to the employment of female teachers with outrage. The governors of Belz, Bobov, or Vizhnitz, however well meaning, are simply not willing to undergo a litany of awkward or angry conversations in shul or mikveh. No-one is willing to stick their neck out and be accused of running the ‘modern’ school that broke the taboo.
There is no reason, however, that ordinary Charedi parents should stand for this situation. Instead of asking for ‘better English’, it’s time to start nailing down schools on specifics. Every boy in Year 1 deserves a competent teacher who knows how to teach phonics. More money hasn’t solved this problem and more money won’t solve this problem. The solution is literally in our midst and all that is needed is the bravery and courage to implement it.
Kesivah V’Chasimah Tovah