Orthodox Jewish schools no longer have to teach sex education. Eastlondonlines spoke to a headteacher from Stamford Hill’s Charedi community about the policy of ‘zero sexualisation’ in their schools.
Stamford Hill’s Orthodox schools, in keeping with Charedi beliefs and tradition, have always gone to great lengths to keep their pupils in the dark about all sexual matters. Schools have not only covered images of women in textbooks, but even censored holy Jewish texts before showing them to pupils.
Eli Spitzer, who taught at two schools in Stamford Hill until five years ago, and is now the head teacher of another Orthodox school in the area, insists that this “policy of zero sexualisation” – contrary to accusations from organisations such as Humanists UK – is not homophobic.
Stamford Hill Charedi Community
Stamford Hill is home to the largest Charedi community in Europe. ”Charedi” is a catch-all term for many groups within Orthodox Judaism which are characterised by strict observance of Jewish law and traditions.
Spitzer told Eastlondonlines: “Orthodox Jewish schools have objected to the introduction of LGBT lessons and there has been an automatic assumption, ‘oh that must be because Orthodox Judaism is opposed to homosexuality.’ When in actual fact, it is not opposition to LGBT matters, it is opposition to all sexual matters full stop.”
Spitzer has been teaching since he was nineteen. He was born and raised in the Charedi community in Stamford Hill and got his first job in the same Orthodox primary school he attended as a child.
Ten years on, he is a vocal advocate for Charedi education. He has written many articles about the topic for The Jewish Chronicle and publishes a regular blog. Recently, he has launched a podcast. His first guest was Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, a “controversial figure in the Orthodox community.”
Spitzer qualifies his criticism of Charedi education, as he does all his criticism of the Charedi community. “Growing up, I went to private institutions within the community and I had very positive experiences in those institutions.” But he admits the secular provisions in those schools were “quite poor”.
He is aware that as one of the few Charedi Jews who readily engages with secular media, his words matter. Over the last six years almost all Charedi schools in the country have seen their Ofsted ratings drop dramatically, while some were even ordered to close. The government’s lack of tolerance towards the Orthodox ‘zero sexualisation policy’ was seen by many Charedi parents and teachers as the root of the schools’ problems.
However, for Spitzer, the sex education debate was always just an unnecessary hindrance and distraction that allowed broader issues of education standards among Charedi schools to go unnoticed.
Orthodox schools’ real problem, in Spitzer’s eyes, is the poor standard of “secular education”, which includes subjects like maths and English. Ofsted has found schools in Stamford Hill where children have struggled to read in English, and their maths skills were lagging behind their peers in mainstream state schools. “Education in Orthodox Jewish schools in this part of town just tends to focus on Jewish studies,” Spitzer explained.
There are approximately 50 independent Orthodox schools in the UK, most based in north London. They do not have to teach the National Curriculum but they must meet minimum Ofsted standards.
Following the 2013 “Trojan Horse” scandal, which involved allegations of a plot to “Islamise” secular schools in Birmingham, Ofsted turned a more watchful eye to faith schools. Most Charedi schools were downgraded by Ofsted, and have since struggled to pass inspections.
However, while other Orthodox schools have been struggling under Ofsted’s scrutiny, Spitzer’s own school is a Charedi success story. Five years ago, when he took over as headmaster, Ofsted judged the school ‘inadequate’. Last February, it celebrated a ‘good’ rating in all areas. Spitzer hopes that the removal of a sex education requirement will make achieving similar results “that little bit easier” for other Orthodox primaries, as it will allow them to focus on improving maths and literacy provisions.
Advocating for rising education standards among Charedi schools has been Spitzer’s main engagement outside of teaching. He has taken the step – unusual for Charedi Jews – to create a dialogue about the issue both with members of the Charedi community as well as secular society.
“If you don’t put forward your own narrative, someone will do it on your behalf,” he said.
“The Orthodox community has a phenomenal growth of almost five per cent a year, which is higher than any other group in the country. So chances are that in ten, twenty years the story of Orthodox Jewish community – for better or worse – will feature far more prominently, simply because it can no longer be hiding in the shadows.”