If you’ve hung around Stamford Hill you’ll know that grievances about schools are probably the most frequent and most deeply felt type of complaints you’ll hear. Of these complaints, the most bitter are not even about the slapdash and shambolic way some of the local mosdos are run, though heaven knows there’s enough to complain about there, but the way that unaccountable school leaders treat parents with disdain, contempt and what sometimes appears to be nothing less than ritual humiliation. 

Before I describe what I believe  the solution to this problem looks like, it’s worth thinking about what the ordinary mechanisms are for keeping school leaders in check within the community and why they frequently fail or don’t operate at all. 

For schools that are part of an international Chassidus, the official way for parents to seek redress of grievances is to turn to the Rebbe in whose name and under whose sufferance the school’s leadership operate. Some of these international Chassidic empires are run by dynamic leaders concerned with growing their Chassidus who will leap into action and call their local franchise to account, others … aren’t. Some Stamford Hill readers will probably know of examples where a Rebbe in New York or Israel has sent in his ‘inspectors’ who licked a chaotic school into shape. They will also likely know of examples where local governors run their schools like a fiefdom with no evident oversight at all.

However, even where the formal chain of command malfunctions, there still exists an informal mechanism for asserting parental rights whenever a school is centered on a particular Chassidus. If parents and governors go to shul and mikveh together, then there is a limit to how badly the latter can treat the former. No-one really likes being in a room where everyone hates you.    

The schools in which parents have the least leverage, then, are precisely those independent establishments that, in theory are supposed to belong to the community at large. Here, there is no higher court of appeal, and governors do not have to face the prospect of attending a shul full of resentful parents. Governors here have something very close to absolute power, and do a sterling job of demonstrating the maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The typical arc of an independent school works as follows. At first, they are founded by a group of parents who simply want a place for their children to learn. Inevitably, the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ kicks in and the school is soon run by a small number of people. At first, the primary requirement for being a member of this group is a big wallet. An independent school whose parents are not, by and large, especially wealthy, will always have a chronic shortage of money, and the primary duty of governors is to make sure there’s enough money at the end of each month, through fundraising when possible, and from their own pocket if not, which is not an infrequent occurrence. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and it is generally understood that the ones responsible for making sure the gas bill is paid each month gets to make the rules. For ordinary parents who may chafe at this or that decision made by Mr. Moneybags, it is quite literally the price of having somewhere to send their children every day.

But then a rather odd dynamic starts to develop. Over time, the financial burden on the governors steadily decreases: loans are paid off, a stable fundraising base is developed, and parents are served up an escalating number of special fees and charges. However, instead of reciprocating by relinquishing some of their power, the governing class guard it ever more carefully. Money bought the original power, but that power once bought is self sustaining.

Moreover, as the financial burden of being a governor declines, a new breed of governors steadily takes over whose interest in running a school is, to use a polite euphemism, rather more ideological. Whereas the early plutocrats were mostly in it for the kovod, the new breed have a very earnest and serious interest in what your wife wears around town and they would like to call you in for a meeting to get a closer look. As time goes by, and a school develops its own entrenched culture and habits, the actual material contribution of the governors to the educational side of things dwindles away and their central, almost sole, duty is bullying parents. 

So what can we do about it? If you want to speak truth to power and not walk away with a limp, you need to understand what that power rests upon so you can kick it away. During the years of plutocrat rule, the source of governor power is obvious: they can threaten to walk away and leave you broke. The power of the commissars, however, rests on something quite different, namely the fact that in any given confrontation with a pair of parents, they have a bigger weapon than their opponent. Since every Charedi school is oversubscribed, governors of an independent Charedi school have full license to use the admissions process to victimise parents who get on their nerves. Actually expelling a pupil because her father gave you a piece of his mind might be going a bit far, but it’s easy enough just to give a rejection notice to the next child they have in the queue, no explanation required. No mother and father want to make a fuss for fear of becoming a target and so the parent body as a whole stays divided and conquered.

To solve this problem there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The tried and trusted solution to imbalance of power in individual negotiations is for the weaker parties to negotiate as a block, in other words to form a union

Here’s what I propose. First, all or the great majority of parents sign up as members of a union and sign a declaration acknowledging it as their representative in negotiations with the school. Second, whenever a parent has a grievance they take it to the elected union representative, who records it and saves it for a scheduled meeting with the board of governors. Third, at this meeting, all complaints are raised and the response of the governors recorded. Finally, the union will publish a periodic report detailing the response of the governors to all the complaints raised. The goal here is to completely reverse the balance of power by giving parents anonymity and holding governors, as individuals, to account so that the entire community can judge for themselves whether their actions are reasonable and moral. 

It doesn’t take much knowledge of the last 100 years to know that a properly organised union can be an immensely powerful force. I think that if this model can be made to work in an individual school then it could become a real community phenomenon. Ultimately, unionisation could be the tool that the Charedi street uses to extract concessions from all unaccountable institutions. That, though, is for the future. In the meantime, a school-level union is a practical solution to a need that becomes more urgent every day.

8 thoughts on “גבורים ביד חלשים

  1. The problem you describe is very real and almost as relevant to schools in NW London, including some of the state aided ones.

    Your proposal runs into the collective action problem (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_action_problem), particularly because those who believe themselves to be well served by the current system will refuse to cooperate with a union that primarily supports those who are not.

    The deeper issue is that parents standing up for their rights and demanding accountability from those running schools runs counter to the Charedi ethos, in which pay up and shut up is the order of the day and if you speak out you’re ipso facto deemed unworthy of a school place.

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  2. What an idea!!! But…. a school level union would still not topple the ruthless leaders at the top, who will continue ignoring the parents and pursuing their agenda, versus a Kehilla wide union that would somehow end up looking like the USA elections – with members not trusting the results and people of power and influence (aka money) getting elected – then we will be back where we started… You write that “If parents and governors go to shul and mikveh together, then there is a limit to how badly the latter can treat the former. No-one really likes being in a room where everyone hates you.” Haven’t noticed that being a problem in my children’s school!!!!

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  3. A great idea in theory but…If I were a governor under threat of a union the obvious counter strategy would be to put the union representatives under pressure and surreptitiously separate them off from the body of the union (perhaps his child is not quite up to the standard of the school…and so there is doubt about letting the child in. etc.). The obvious union activists are those with children in the school.

    Also as you are probably aware much of the school related activity, especially (where it happens – this is not to say all schools are guilty) unsalubrious activity is never and can never be written down.

    The obsession with how parents dress is what I call Jewish fascism and is a symptom IMHO of the sickness that prevails in haredi (chassidic and litvishe) communities where what is important is not what is real Torah and midos but appearances. My children are all grown up so there is no pressure that can be put on me but I know of at least 2 cases in my extended family where a specific local school (and coincidentally the one I went to) put pressure for nonsense reasons on members of my family (in one the wife looked too smart).

    This prevailing moral sickness is blatently evident in charedi conduct in their conduct as regards the Covid 19 epidemic where despite clear and proven dangers to life ( לפני עור לא תתן מכשול, לא תעמד על דם רעך etc) danger to life is deliberately ignored.

    Perhaps a better solution is for parents to secretly record all instances of inappropriate bullying by the governors and pass these recordings on to the authorities. Of course the governors need to be warned explicitly at say the start of a school year that all interactions between parents and governors may be recorded without warning and inappropriate behaviour may be passed on to Offsted. Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.

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  4. In principal great idea.In practice it needs input from wider community and ideally should be international including Israel and USA.If this takes off this could be expanded to tackle other injustices.

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  5. Eli

    The mistake you make is you forget what you yourself told Amanda Spielman regarding teaching protected charactistics. You said if she wants schools to teach them she should take it up with the parents as they will remove their kids from school if they would teach a secular curriculum.

    The pressure on governors regarding how people dress is from the parent body. Governors receive complaints continuously, why are there mothers picking up children from school dressed like a ‘goyte’. ‘I don’t want my child in school with children from semi Frum homes’.

    In fact most community schools open because the parent body are not happy with the standard of home their children are learning in at the moment. So the governor control at the beginning is the same as governor control at the beginning – their will is aligned to what the parent body want.

    In defense of the governor bodies – Those who send to a Charedi school, which were set up for a specific set of pupils – from families with a specific set of ethos, should tow the line or send elsewhere. Creating a new Union, as you call it, is unfair as essentially you are hijacking a school that was set up to cater for a set of families and changing it.

    Of course, in some circumstances it may be fair if most of the parent body have changed from when the school was set up. But, I don’t see this as the case in virtually any SH schools.

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  6. So why shouldn’t this “ideal” union just open a school where everyone is admitted without questions, u’vo le’Tzion Goel?

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  7. It’s a good idea in principle.
    However, the only people who would join the union are the parents of kids who are rejected from schools. Once, their child is accepted, they would leave.
    Not all school governors are ‘wrong uns’ but they will not tell you the real truth why they don’t want your child. They will just say a euphemism about the family like, ‘they’re not our type.’ Also, it would be like communicating with aliens from the planet zorb, as they will will never relinquish their wonderful school place as they feel they are the best in Britain, even the whole world. The poor child would be better off not being accepted in such a place. The parents should run a mile. Who wants to dance like a bear infront of some rogues? They only make the plebs do the dance and none of their rich and famous people.
    I think what Stamford Hill needs is a good voluntary aided school under the government to cater for children who may not fit the mould, for example kids with ADHD, ASD, social and communication differences and any kids who don’t fit into the cheder system or whose parents want them to have an academic education.

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