Jewish faith schools introduce religious observance tests

Middlesex, UK - At JFS, the Jews' Free School, cars are circling asphalt, looking for space, and a stream of people ebbs and flows through the doors. It is the school's open evening and, at the end of three hours, more than 1,300 people, potential students and their eager parents, will have crossed the threshold.

This school is vast, in size and in reputation. Occupying 26 acres, it rises up from a slab of parkland off a busy street in Kenton, Middlesex. The academic record here has earned JFS the title of number one non-selective secondary in the country: 86% of its 2009 A-level results were grade A or B, and Ofsted deemed it outstanding in all 39 of the measures used to assess a school. It is also an institution. Founded in 1732, it has educated hundreds and thousands of pupils – its alumni include Jay Kay from Jamiroquai, the actor Gina Bellman and former MP Barbara Roche – and is a bedrock of Anglo-Jewry.

At the crowded open evening, the well-equipped classrooms and spotless gymnasiums are attracting attention, but so too is an anonymous desk set up in the sixth-form refectory. Past the gleaming counters serving baked potatoes and mushroom pasta but before the screen showing real-time events at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall, a woman is answering questions from anxious parents about the school's new admissions policy, introduced this month.

The new points system has been brought in following a ruling by the Court of Appeal, in June, that it was unlawful to prioritise applications from children with Jewish mothers because this discriminated on grounds of race. There was shock and anger from the school and from the community – that an English secular court should decide who was Jewish was unthinkable. The decision threw the Jewish education system into chaos because, in effect, the ruling said such an admissions policy was racist.

At breakneck speed, and with virtually no time for consultation with parents, JFS and other schools like it introduced a religious practice test. Being born to a Jewish mother was no longer enough to get a place - now people had to prove they were Jewish by acting Jewish. Earlier this month, a senior figure from the Jewish community called the new rules "a fiasco of the highest order". One synagogue leader said the policy had "little credibility" and that the decision to implement it was "misguided".

Synagogues have seen a spike in attendance as the erstwhile faithful rush back to earn their points before admissions deadlines expire.

Anthony Arnold, chair of Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue, says: "It's not really a religious practice test because it's not about practice. Going to synagogue once every fortnight or once a week is not a test. There's a lot more to Judaism than going to synagogue. The problem the schools faced was that at very short notice they had to devise something which related to practice and could be measured. But a lot of Judaism is about how you conduct yourself at home - how do you measure that?"

Schools are operating a points-based system. What do points make? Prizes – namely a place at the school of your choice. JFS, for example, requires children to have three points in order to be considered a priority applicant. Its form advises parents that "the relevant person may decline to sign this form where your child is not known to them and/or [they] cannot vouch for your child's attendance".

Since 1 September 2009, attending synagogue twice a month in addition to festivals earns a child three points. Formal Jewish education – in a synagogue or with a tutor - is worth one point. Voluntary work in a charity or welfare organisation is worth one point. Fortuitously, autumn is one of the busiest periods in the Jewish calendar, with no fewer than three high holy days.

The form warns that in the event that "it is discovered that a parent has submitted information above which is later found to be incorrect, this may result in the refusal of the school to offer a place to the child. If a place has already been offered on the basis of incorrect information, the school may withdraw the offer."

The same certificate is being used at Yavneh college, in Borehamwood, and King Solomon high in Redbridge. Arnold adds: "Does it achieve anything? Even if you come to synagogue, the rabbi won't get to know you. It's not going to make people more religious, but we want to take something positive out of this. We hope people will come to synagogue and will find it stimulating and enjoyable and keep coming back.

"I am sure there were people who came, posted the card in the box and went home again," he adds, referring to the synagogue's scheme to record attendance.

"Parents are worried and confused and we're getting lots of questions. But the bar was set very low because it [the problem] had to be dealt with quickly and they didn't want to exclude children."

The impact of the court ruling has put Jewish schools in a similar position to other faith schools, which require religious observance or practice for entry. Broadly speaking, for Church of England and Catholic schools this means baptism, and for Muslim schools it is proof that a child's family and home environment is suitably halal. In the event of oversubscription, the bar is higher among schools with a Christian denomination and regular church attendance can be a deciding factor.

Some Muslim schools – like Islamia, the independent secondary in north-west London – pull up parents who derive their income from forbidden activities such as the sale of pornographic material or alcohol – and give them a year to pursue more salubrious employment.

But observance has not, traditionally, defined who is Jewish. Nick Arnold has two school-aged children, a daughter who is two-and-a-half and a son who is four-and-a-half. He and his wife are expecting their third child at the end of November.

He says: "Every week we have to go to synagogue, which isn't a problem because we go anyway, but we have to register our attendance and it's more of a pain.

"We want our daughter to go to the same school as her brother and we had already submitted the forms in July – before the changes came in – and now we have to do it all over again."

Arnold says that some people thought that the new admissions policy only affected secondary schools. "It's any entry point, whether it's nursery, primary or secondary. We feel it's a bit pointless.

"We've got friends who are less orthodox, less committed, and they would come sometimes, but not all the time, to synagogue. They were concerned because they don't know the rabbi, but our synagogue has a very fair system where you write your details down to log attendance. Hand on heart, even if you knew everyone in your community there's no way you could vouch for someone's attendance when it's really busy."

He believes it should be a community's job to define who is a member. "Judaism is a religion, not a race. You can't convert to a race."

Nobody at JFS wants to talk publicly about the ruling and its effect on admissions; the school has won leave to appeal against the ruling in the Supreme Court next month.

Back in Borehamwood, a state-of-the-art school is preparing for its open evening, with anticipated crowds of up to 3,000. The chair of governors at Yavneh college, Malcolm Gordon, does not understand the criticism levelled at schools and religious authorities.

"We had no choice but to implement changes. We had to comply with the law and we have done that in consultation with other, similar schools. The court made its decision in late June and we had to introduce the policy in time for 2010 admissions, which started in September."

He is not worried that the new rules will exclude children, although he concedes it might change "the priority and the way they come to the school".

Yavneh, too, will have an admissions desk for concerned parents with questions. Other than that, it is business as usual. "The ruling has not had any impact on the school at the moment and we don't expect it to. We're a Modern Orthodox school and we are run along those lines."