Unregistered Jewish faith academies ‘put on notice’ over child safety

Hackney Town Hall.

So-called ‘unregistered educational settings’ in Hackney, the vast majority of which are Jewish faith academies or yeshivas, have been “put on notice” by safeguarding bosses over child safety.

Officers spoke last night of a lack of progress in oversight in such matters as basic health and safety or Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks of employees’ criminal records.

Hopes were raised last year that a safeguarding committee for yeshivas could be formed in the borough, but child safeguarding chair Jim Gamble has now announced he will now “draw a line” ending negotiations over the issue.

Gamble said: “I will be turning the volume up on this. Since 2013, we have engaged, visited, consulted, facilitated meetings with the government and with respective ministers, but we are not one step further forward.

“While I respect so much of what goes on in the community, and so many of the good things that come out of that faith-based environment, I am not reassured that children are safe in yeshivas, and we have now got to draw a line that says safeguarding is non-negotiable.

“We can’t come back here next year and have another conversation like this. I’m not differentiating – whatever the institution, non-recent historical abuse happens.  Five or ten years from now, we will be dealing with issues where people will not forgive the fact that we did not apply professional curiosity and did not respectfully challenge.

“I am putting you on notice and others that I have done as much as I can when it comes to this. We now must push forward, and see evidence that children are being safeguarded in these environments, and I have no option but to escalate that at this time.”

Gamble added that the safeguarding of students at yeshivas was “non-negotiable”, and that matters had come to a head following his feeling that it was being used as a quid pro quo alongside institutions’ attempts to protect their curriculums.

Town Hall officers spoke last of their attempts to mount a “hearts and minds” campaign to reassure yeshivas that safeguarding is the focus, though the investigation into the issue launched in 2016 was also prompted by concerns over a “narrow” curriculum.

Michael Lobenstein, representative of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, which represents synagogues as opposed to schools, said: “We have had many constructive meetings and correspondence with Jim Gamble regarding yeshivas.

“I’ve been assured that the yeshivas do have health and safety checks, that all their staff are DBS-checked, they go along with all of it.

“The problem is the curriculum. The reason why the council and other official bodies are having difficulty controlling the curriculum, the feeling that once the council has a foot in these yeshivas, they will touch on the curriculum.

“Yeshivas’ curriculum has been going on for hundreds of years. It’s something that we’re very proud of, and something they just will not change. The truth is, as far as the curriculum is concerned, Mr and Mrs Hackney can be proud of the products of the yeshivas.”

Lobenstein went on to call on Gamble to use his influence with central government to lobby for yeshivas’ curriculums to be “ringfenced in law” from any alteration.

Though the safeguarding chair expressed his “utmost respect” for Lobenstein at the meeting, the safeguarding boss said that he did not “share [his] confidence” that DBS checks and safe recruitment is taking place within the estimated 23 institutions in the borough.

Gamble has now expressed his intention to name all yeshivas as “designated agencies” under the Children and Social Work Act, with an accompanying expectation that they will behave as statutory bodies.

The Town Hall is now calling once again for legislation from central government to give local authorities powers to define a school, after which point they could gain oversight of its processes.

While Gamble listed “imaginative tactics” that could be used within the law by the local authority, such as working with the fire service or police to gain access to a building if a report had been made, he underlined the need for a “surgical instrument that does this sensitively, so we can support the community at the same time as we get the reassurance”.

Town Hall officers are now speaking of a “hearts and minds” campaign, working with the Interlink Foundation and registered schools in the borough, to reassure the community that safeguarding is the council’s “focus” and that any information will not be used for “nefarious purposes”.