For the past five years, the ‘Chinuch crisis’ in the UK has centered on the battle between OFSTED and schools. This confrontation has played out on two levels. The first concerns the poor quality of secular education in many boys’ schools, particularly chassidic chedorim. The second is the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and OFSTED’s interpretation of it as requiring explicit instruction in alternative sexual lifestyles. Greatly to the misfortune of our community, these two quite separate issues have become inextricably intertwined meaning that OFSTED and schools have, for the most part, been stuck in an unproductive stalemate instead of working together to improve standards of education.
Now, however, the Chinuch war is opening a new front. The Department for Education has recently launched a consultation on closing down loopholes that have allowed unregistered settings to stay open on the grounds that they do not provide a normal school curriculum. It is likely that this measure has been taken with a specific view to target Yeshivah Ketanas, the equivalent of secondary school attended by most boys in the Chassidic community in Years 8-11. These institutions have been able to survive and thrive for decades by officially declaring themselves to be intensive 6-days-a-week talmudic youth clubs and exploiting endemic buck-passing on the part of Local Authorities and the DfE. Barring a completely unexpected turn of events this state of affairs will swiftly be coming to an end. Proprietors of these Yeshivas will have to register or face criminal prosecution.
In response to this threat, certain voices in the community are calling for community-wide resistance to yet another Gezeirah. The truth, however, is that, in this case, resistance really is futile. The fact is that we live in a small country with a high degree of political centralisation and a large administrative state. Whatever your personal political philosophy has to say, you can’t run an unregistered bakery or pet shop in the United Kingdom, let alone a school. People who don’t like it are free to trade in their British passport and join Lev Tahor on their tour of Latin America.
I have already written about the need for our community to take an adult approach to its increasingly prominent status in British society. We account for more than half of all Jewish births in the UK and can pack out one of the country’s biggest arenas for a Siyum. It’s just preposterous to suggest we can evade the law in the nation’s capital and hope nobody will notice. If we want to live here, we can’t run unregistered schools. End of story.
Since keeping the Yeshivas open without registering them is no longer an option, we have to look for practical solutions. The most obvious course of action, and the one the DfE probably expects, is for Yeshivas to apply for registration as standalone institutions. In reality, though, this would be prohibitively difficult. It would require constructing an entirely new infrastructure to deal with compliance, health and safety, special needs, recruitment, and safeguarding, something with which the current Yeshiva leadership are totally unfamiliar and wouldn’t know where to begin. Even if this could be achieved, the Yeshivas would not meet the requirements for registration because their curriculum is so far divorced from the national accepted standard. The only realistic measure, then, is to incorporate the Yeshivas as the secondary school component of an already registered primary school. All but a handful of the Yeshiva Ketanas in London have an associated ‘feeder-cheder’, with which they could simply amalgamate to form a single institution running from Year 1 to Year 11. Belz Yeshiva in Stamford Hill have already taken this measure and whatever we might think of imposing this model more generally, it is simply hysterical to refer to it as a gezeirah.
So, practically speaking, this is a change that our community has the tools to deal with and deal with it we will have to, whether we like it or not. What I want to emphasise, however, is that we should not take the default position of seeing any change imposed from the outside as inherently unwelcome. There’s a widespread, albeit usually tacit, recognition in the community that the Yeshiva system for Years 8-11 has major flaws and, instead of rallying around it in the name of communal solidarity, we should see this as an opportunity to make changes that, if we’re honest, are long overdue.
The basic fact about these Yeshivas is that they are essentially institutions for adults attended by children. From morning till night, they are based around attendance of lengthy, intricate shiurim that many adults would struggle with, followed by extended periods of independent learning with minimal guidance or support. They have none of the pedagogical techniques or pastoral care that are typical in a secondary school and the unsurprising result is that many, perhaps even most, students can’t cope. Mothers are kept completely excluded, depriving pupils of ordinary parental input and removing the invaluable role that the Jewish mother normally plays in ensuring that schools treat their pupils properly.
Anyone can see for themselves what the effect this type of regimen has on the typical teenager by observing their behaviour and conduct during the family Simcha, the Rebbe’s Tish and other community events, which makes a mockery of the concept of menschlichkeit and good middos.
The academic achievements of these institutions are no better. It is no secret that many parents across the community are forced to spend money they don’t have on private lessons with kollel yungerleit, without which their sons would learn almost nothing at all. Even worse, by the time they do develop the cognitive maturity necessary to flourish in a Yeshiva environment, they are often already completely alienated from, and resentful towards, learning.
At this stage, many will already be asking why the traditional system shouldn’t work just as well now as it always has. The answer to that is not straightforward. It is not clear, to start with, that this really is the traditional system. The majority of our senior Rabanim and Dayanim in Stamford Hill attended educational institutions that ran from primary up to Years 10 or 11, as, indeed, do Litvish institutions all over the world today. Those who did graduate shortly after their bar mitzvah usually didn’t go to a Yeshiva Ketana, but straight to an ordinary Yeshiva where they could learn both from and with the older boys who had already spent a number of years in the system. Perhaps our ‘Kidzania’ style Yeshiva Ketanas preserve only the worst of both systems, imposing upon teenagers the rigours of an adult system without actually doing anything to integrate them into adult society.
Another factor may be that the style of learning in Yeshiva Ketana has become progressively more sophisticated, or ‘yeshivish’, leaving an increasingly large proportion of students behind. In any case, the world has changed substantially over the past 50 years. It was once typical for 14 or 15 year olds to leave education and go out to work into the adult world; moreover, corporal punishment was routine. The way young people are treated now is completely different, including in our community. It’s naive to imagine that this will have no ramifications for what does and doesn’t work in our education system.
The bottom line, however, is this: most of us already know from our individual experiences that the Yeshiva Ketana system is not working. The only jump we have to make is to break the culture of silence and realise that this is not just the case for some boys, but most of them. It isn’t just your son who is bewitched, bothered and bewildered; it’s the majority. Those teenagers who truly thrive under these conditions are the real exceptions.
What I’m proposing, therefore, is that Yeshivas are remodelled so that they look more like schools. If you want to keep calling it a Yeshiva, that’s fine, it’s what’s under the surface that we need to fix. The Maggid Shiur should be replaced with class Rebbes who have a responsibility for the spiritual and emotional development of the child, and a responsibility to act in loco parentis. Classes should be no longer than an hour and should be varied between different subjects. Pupils should get regular breaks with full supervision and pastoral care. Lessons should be delivered with an understanding that the adolescent mind is different to that of a fully developed adult. Special educational needs should be recognised and catered for. Pupils should be subject to ordinary behaviour management and not left to recreate scenes from Lord of the Flies.
All this is completely independent of other debates within Charedi chinuch. The changes I outlined above can be done without introducing any secular studies at all. While I firmly believe that the typical Charedi boy should continue with secular studies until the age of 15 or 16, the absence of secular studies is not the core problem with Yeshivas. The reason they are in such desperate need of reform is that they simply provide bad Chinuch. They do not nurture good middos and they do not effectively transmit knowledge, improve understanding or inspire a love for learning. Even the frummest members of our kehilah should see the urgent need for change.
Implementing these changes will of course present logistical and pedagogical challenges, but the benefits can hardly be overstated. Real educators in the Yeshiva system will have the chance to finally do some serious educating and the only losers will be scions of wealthy dynasties who can no longer claim the title of Rosh Yeshiva or Mashgiach Ruchani in a make-believe institution. The majority of parents who know that something is deeply wrong, but feel that they don’t have a choice will rejoice. Most importantly, future generations of Chasidic boys will get the kind of education they deserve.