Alice Harrold reports on controversial Jewish school in Hackney which excludes topics from its curriculum which are “not in line with” the Orthodox ethos such as internet-use, the theory of evolution and sexual health and well-being.
When Yesodey Hatorah’s £14 million campus for senior girls opened in 2005, the celebrated event was attended by Tony Blair, Lord Levy, Gerald Ronson, and Richard Desmond.
The Jewish state school in Stamford Hill, which has drawn attention in the past for its teaching and ethos, has been the subject of a recent controversy between Ofsted and national secular organisations. The debate about teaching the national curriculum, reported on by ELL, has led to official complaints against Ofsted’s “lenient” response.
Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, which is state-funded and voluntary-aided, serves the Orthodox, Charedi Jewish community which accounts for about 10 per cent of the Hackney’s population.
YHSGS has over 300 students aged 11 to 16 years-old. It is overseen by the Hackney Learning Trust, a private, not-for-profit company which functions as a department of Hackney Council’s Children and Young People’s service.
First established as an independent school in 1942, the senior girls’ department of Yesodey Hatorah was granted state status in 2005.
School criticised for redacting evolution questions on science exams
In March the National Secular Society called for an investigation into possible exam malpractice at YHSGS. The investigation carried out by the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Exam Board found that the school had been redacting questions on science exam papers.
Ofqual said that if found culpable, the school could have sanctions imposed on it. However, after the claims were proven it was discovered from a FoI request made by the NSS and shared with the BBC that the OCR exam board had come to a private agreement with the schools involved which would allow for exam censorship by “stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place” while respecting the school’s “need to do this in view of their religious beliefs.”
Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, the school’s principal, told the Hackney Citizen, “If we can’t redact (questions), then we won’t redact them.” But he confirmed that the school would continue to advise students against answering “halaichally questionable” exam sections, including ones about evolution.
The NSS responded that they consider the distinction between redacting and discouraging answering questions to be “insignificant” as either practice “betrays students’ best interests…leaving them ill-equipped for life outside of a religious community.”
They called on the education authorities to further investigate Rabbi Pinter’s statement about discouraging pupils to answer questions and alleged comments by him that homosexuality is “incompatible” with the school’s religious ethos.
Yesodey Hatorah and the Pinter family
It was Rabbi Pinter’s father who first founded the Yesodey Hatorah school in 1942. Rabbi Pinter, now the principal, is an influential person in the Hackney Jewish community. He is involved in the running of three schools with the Yesodey Hatorah name and many other organisations including Hamodia, ‘the newspaper of Torah Jewry’, is published in Israel, New York and Stamford Hill for which he is an unpaid consultant.
Rachel Pinter, wife of Rabbi Pinter, was headteacher of YHSGS for 27 years until her death earlier this year. She was awarded an OBE in 2008 for her service to education and it was under her guidance that Ofsted rated the school as “outstanding” in 2006.
A new interim headteacher was appointed at the end of the summer term after Rachel Pinter’s death. The Pinters’ daughter, Rivky Weinberg, filled the position.
Education for Orthodox Jewish girls
Within the Charedi community women are often expected to finish education after secondary school and become a wife and mother. However, while at primary and secondary level, girls are given a broader education than boys whose studies focus more on religion.
Very few students at YHSGS go to university because, Rabbi Pinter said: “there isn’t the environment for Haredi girls to do that”, although some might do Open University courses such as Midwifery while continuing to live at home.
“Our experience is that the better educated girls turn out to be the most successful mothers. For us, that’s the most important role a woman plays.”
School rules and code of behaviour at YHSGS
YHSGS follows the “stringent moral criteria of the Charedi community” including limiting use of technology. The behaviour policy says that parents and students must agree to remain “unaffected by detrimental outside influences”:
- Girls may only visit public libraries if accompanied by a parent.
- Access to the internet is forbidden even for educational purposes. Accounts on Facebook or any other social networking site is forbidden.
- Students may not own a mobile phone.
- Leisure activities not in line with our school ethos, e.g. ice skating and bowling, are not permitted.
- Any large group activities (e.g. watching DVDs or videos as a group) or parties must have prior permission from school.
- Sleepovers are not permitted.
When asked about the strict religious ethos, Rabbi Pinter told ELL on Monday that he “believes very much in parental choice. Ofsted’s report noted that our children and our parents are very happy with the education of our school.”
High academic ranking falls after student boycott exam
In 2007 YHSGS was top of the Department for Education’s school’s “value added” scoring system for pupil progress, beating 81 grammar schools, when pupils at the school were on average five terms ahead of 14-year-olds in the rest of the country in maths, English and science.
In 2008 the school lost its ranking when nine students refused to sit a Key Stage Three English exam on Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Their scores of zero brought the school down 349 places from the previous year to 274th in Key Stage Three league tables.
Rabbi Pinter told the Daily Mail that the girls had reached their view with the help of their parents. “There was a perception that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic,” he said. “We felt that we needed to respect those children’s views.
“We did nothing to discourage them. We teach our pupils to have pride in what they believe in.”