Religious values in schools should be protected, not forced into hiding

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Just look at the line below: read it aloud, sing it even and if you don't understand it, all the better:

'El campesino va por el camino. El nombre del hombre es Ramon. Ramon trabaja mucho en el campo.'

When, aged 11, I encountered my first written words of Spanish, I fell in love with them - everything about them, the shape of the letters, the sounds, the rhymes, the pure romanticism of them – so it seemed to me. In actual fact, though, the above sentiments translated merely describe the mundane working habits of farmers in rural Spain.

So why have they stayed with me all my life? Surely something about the mystery and the joy of learning – the embracing of the 'other' which in Jewish teaching is already there in embryo and is simply what we knew all along and have to relearn during our life on earth. In fact, in Judaism education is relearning what we in fact already knew before we were born but have since forgotten.

These words always came into my head whenever, as a young teenager, I took solo trips by train around Majorca, where my parents had a home, visited expatriate British poet Robert Graves and later in life participated in a scholarly delegation of 12 or so Abraham ibn Ezra experts from all round the world for his 900th anniversary celebrations.

Those first Spanish words even accompanied me on a coach trip from Madrid to Tudela laid on for us by the country's Ministry of Culture in the brilliant cold sun of February 1989. And before that, on a solitary train trip to Soller, to the monastery where great Polish composer Frederic Chopin made his home for a short while and wrote his famous Rainbow Prelude while it was tipping down outside. But when I tried to engage with the monks living in the monastery they closed up – because their language was Catalan, and not Spanish, which they refused to speak.

More recently, I have also found this in Lithuania, where I thought Russian would help – the language of most formal documentation – but not at all. Contemporary Lithuanians preferred to speak German, their second language – useful for me, though, in researching my husband's family's history way back, although the records were in a mixture of Russian and Yiddish, which I managed somehow to decipher. But the language of discourse with Lithuanians was German, which is another language which has always proved to be unexpectedly helpful in life, I've found.

All these experiences have further helped me as a teacher, whether of Hebrew, the Bible, Jewish history or Jewish thought, and in schools, both modern languages and PSHRE.

Those first words of Spanish repeated as a mantra have proved themselves useful wherever Spanish has been needed. But that's not how languages are taught nowadays. Now, it's no longer about the wonderful 'other' but all about me, me, me.

For her French GCSE, my younger daughter was, for instance, asked in the Oral which parent she preferred, her mother or father. You couldn't say both. When I was principal examiner for Modern Hebrew, the convenor, based in Sheffield for some reason, said that when answering the question 'When you go to the beach, what do you take with you?', any noun would do, however irrelevant, including, quite literally, the 'kitchen sink.' This was, she said, because the aim of exams was to attract parents and children and if the lowest common denominator took their fancy, so be it.

The main reasons were money. No pupils, no money, no exam, no more Hebrew, nada! And no, she wasn't Jewish – far from it – and I resigned on the spot. I had actually been brought in by the exam board to raise the standards of Hebrew teaching to those of standard languages, such as French, German and Spanish, all languages I knew well, but was quickly disillusioned. 'Is this really what education is all about?' I wondered, and still do.

And that particular question: what is education actually all about is grabbing the headlines more recently. You may well be asking yourselves what exactly is the point of education today when language learning is practically nil and Personal, Social, Health and Religious Education has become an absolute travesty, causing more harm than good. The fact is, nobody knows.

And as a result, brilliant Jewish schools around the country are being drastically downgraded by ignorant people. Some schools have been forced to close simply because girls and boys are educated separately, which everyone knows is far better for girls, as well as being part of observant Jewish teaching.

And some schools have been targetted by people with a definite anti-Jewish agenda, despite excellent results in GCSE and A level exams from which students carry on to study medicine, law, maths and engineering at some of our best universities. But these achievements and all the extra-curricular voluntary work carried out in the community by pupils are simply not good enough for a country where the aim of education has now become 'tick-box' on the one hand and ego-based on the other.

This over-concentration on self is condemned in Jewish teaching. We even have a name for it. The yetzer ha-ra, usually translated as 'evil impulse' is also related to the type of imagination which runs away with a person. And that is what is happening now. Pupils are being encouraged to concentrate overly on themselves and indulge in runaway thoughts. These often lead to tragic consequences. Not a good recipe for a rounded education or a happy life.

When King David says in the 23rd Psalm:

'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters,' these words are so reminiscent of the old Spanish primer above. They are outward-looking and encourage us to be grateful for the lives of other people, even of people alien to ourselves, especially when we are, as David constantly was, at our wits' end or even in the depths of despair.

But where do you hear these words now in the school environment?

When Shakespeare writes: 'The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest,' this teaches us that there is a way out of the cycle of revenge. He teaches us that the more we give, the more we receive. This is Jewish teaching par excellence, even if Shakespeare, not knowing any Jews (who were banned from England at the time), wasn't maybe aware of Jewish teaching, genius though he was.

But does anybody read Shakespeare from beginning to end any more? I doubt it.

These people from Ofsted who come round to our schools, terrorizing parents, teachers and pupils alike for not falling in line with their ideology, probably don't know any Jews who actually practise their religion. They may not even know any practising Christians. They are men and women on a mission – and the mission is: we are certainly going to win the war of ideas, come what may.

To paraphrase George Orwell: the mantra now seems to be: 'Ofsted right, religion wrong.'

The powers that be probably aren't aware of the key parental duty in Judaism to teach our children every hour of the day or night. Every observant Jew has a mezuza on every door of their home, containing within its boxed exterior the words of the Shema in Hebrew, starting: 'Hear, o Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.'

What does this mean? This means that 'You will teach them diligently to your children' every single second of the day and night:

It also means that everything we do in life is geared towards our children. And, just as important, children should learn from our behavior and not from mere words alone.

And the words are addressed to a community first – our - and to the individual second. Ofsted doesn't appear to recognize the supremacy of community in Judaism. All those great rabbis who spouted fine words are most appreciated for the number of schools and communities they built. Ask any Jew and he or she would agree with this definition of a truly great Jew. Not words, but facts on the ground – that's what counts – not the excess emphasis on individuality which we're experiencing nowadays.

When disruptive and ignorant forces enter schools with a hidden agenda, then Jewish schools have no choice. As I write, some have now taken the first steps towards applying for judicial review in order to safeguard the rights of Jewish children to have a proper Jewish education.

Because the law should be there to protect minorities and especially the Jewish community, given our tragic history and our record of service to this country. Unfortunately, however, this country is losing its sense of what gratitude is all about, and Parliament's recent behaviour is demonstrating that things are beginning to fall apart big time.

But, mark my words. If Jewish parents and teachers continue to be prevented from teaching the words and ideas which are the basis of all western civilizations and, as a result, some Jewish families are forced to leave the country in order to have the education that is their right, this country will soon reap what it has sown.

I know we are not alone in this concern, many Christians and parents of other faiths are too, hence the protests that have continued outside of school gates and the fear that has been expressed over the right of parents to withdraw their children from RSE lessons that are becoming compulsory next year.

Rather than preventing Jewish and other schools, parents, teachers and pupils from pursuing our own traditions of education, this country should examine more closely the good that has come from true diversity of belief.

It is not, surely, a coincidence that faith schools often top rankings and that by Ofsted's own inspections, many Church schools are rated good or outstanding. And it is definitely not through osmosis alone that 40% of Nobel-prize-winning economists are Jewish, nor that over 20% of all other Nobel prize winners are Jewish. This is down to one thing and one thing alone – our emphasis on education and on teaching our children day and night, as stated in the Deuteronomic Shema.

The main goal of Jewish education is to produce adults who know how to navigate the life around them while still retaining an adherence to the ways and practices of the past – to be citizens who contribute to the general good without sacrificing their own wellbeing in a Jewish environment.

This precarious balance is now being threatened – and is indeed the greatest threat to the Jewish community of this country – even more so than rampant political antisemitism, which (let's face it) is nothing new in Jewish experience, however frightening the current wave is proving to be.

But when Judaism has produced some of the world's best teachers, educators, academics and scholars then one has to wonder what is behind the almost inexplicable animosity experienced by our nation's schools at the hands of people who frankly aren't even worthy of the hospitality they are often shown by their hosts for the day.

So let us not forget that the Deuteronomic injunction to 'love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might' actually goes on to explain that education is the key to all Jewish endeavor. Jewish parents are simply unable to absolve themselves of this duty, even if – as it seems – the law of the land seems to be proving itself to be something of an ass.

And it is surely no coincidence that as the Jewish community moves towards Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year, which often coincides with the start of the new academic year, we read these Deuteronomic words about slowly but surely educating our children to recall what they really knew all along.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.