IN recent months, a series of clandestine meetings has taken place at No 10 Downing Street involving the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser (SPAD) on matters of Faith Communities and certain leading members of Chinuch UK.
The SPAD in question is a Mr John Hellewell who, prior to being appointed to No 10 in September, 2016, had worked for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prince of Wales and no fewer than three Tory leaders — one Catholic (Iain Duncan Smith), one Anglican (David Cameron) and one Jewish (Michael Howard).
Impressed? So you should be. On his appointment, the Catholic Herald described Hellewell as “intensely religiously literate . . . politically astute, organisationally effective, discreet.”
I shall come back to this word “discreet” in a moment.
First, I need to remind you that Chinuch UK was established earlier this year as a lead body representing the interests of Orthodox Jewish schools in England.
The trigger for its foundation was to be found in growing concern at the policies that were then being pursued by Ofsted, the school inspection agency.
Ofsted is formally an independent body. But it is expected to follow guidelines promulgated by the Department for Education. Its work is therefore — inevitably — political in nature.
And in recent years, Ofsted policymakers have been targeted by an unashamedly anti-religious crusade being waged by a miscellany of secularist lobbies, principally Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association).
I can say this without hesitation because I have seen the relevant correspondence.
The principal — though by no means the only — preoccupation of these lobbies is the refusal of most Orthodox Jewish schools to teach anything positive (or, indeed, anything at all) about alternative lifestyles.
It was in 2015 that a new set of Independent School Standards came into force, promoting what were termed “British values”. Ofsted has insisted that these values can only mean secular values, including the celebration of homosexual and lesbian relationships.
As a result, Orthodox schools that had previously been rated as good or even outstanding have, since 2015, been downgraded by Ofsted to “inadequate”.
Chinuch UK was established to meet this challenge. With a steering group of smartly- dressed lay leaders, supported by an awesome array of rabbinical luminaries (including the Gateshead Rosh Yeshiva and the Stamford Hill macher rabbi Avrohom Pinter), Chinuch UK did not waste time in taking the bull by the horns.
Its leaders met Ofsted and they met the DfE. When these encounters seemed not to be producing what they wanted, they commenced a dialogue with the discreet John Hellewell.
The leaky charedi world being what it is, news of this dialogue inevitably leaked out. But when it did so, it became clear that not everyone in Chinuch UK — let alone in the wider charedi world — knew what was actually going on.
It became clear that what was actually going on was a negotiation that was designed to have as its endpoint a nebulous “understanding” that Ofsted would lessen the severity of its condemnations of Orthodox Jewish schools, perhaps in return for vague promises to teach the virtues of tolerance.
I want to say at once that I believe the leadership of Chinuch UK has been doing what it sincerely believes to be in the best interest of Jewish education in England.
But one does not have to be an honours graduate in British government to realise that the sort of negotiated outcome I have just described would not be worth the cost of the paper it would be word-processed on — if indeed it was ever committed to writing.
If Jewish faith schools were treated more leniently than other faith schools, this would soon become apparent. The secularists would be up in arms.
And what of Mr Hellewell? He cannot, surely, be overjoyed that secret meetings with him in the consecrated sanctity of No 10 have become public knowledge.
Worse still, what, I wonder, will he make of the spectacularly unsuccessful attempt by Rabbi Pinter to have condemned by the rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations Mr Shraga Stern, an independent activist — who happens also to be a personal friend of mine — who lodged with No 10 a perfectly legal request for details of these secret meetings.
The proper way forward is obvious.
It is for these secret meetings to end and for Chinuch UK to demand, publicly, that the government and Ofsted adhere fully to Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which happens to guarantee freedom of religious practice.
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