A group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish students nearly drowned after being taken on a hiking expedition by unqualified teachers working at an illegal faith school that the Government has known about for five years but which remains open.
The children, who were dressed in traditional Orthodox clothes instead of hiking gear for the trip on 6 June and were unable to read warning signs because they can't speak any English, had to be rescued by emergency services after the tide came and nearly swept them out to sea.
The Independent understands that the teachers put the children’s lives in further danger because, once they realised they were at risk of drowning, they initially contacted community leaders in Stamford Hill, north London, instead of contacting authorities for fear of the illegal school being discovered.
The school is understood to be one of dozens which an investigation by The Independent revealed in April are operating illegally in the Stamford Hill area of Hackney. More than 1,000 children are believed to be taught at the ultra-orthodox Jewish schools which follow only a strict religious education as they belong to very devout orthodox Jewish families.
Government authorities have known about many of the schools for several years, including the school involved in the hiking expedition for five years, but not shut them down.
The schools teach boys from the age of 13 onwards following their Bar Mitzvah. Lessons often last from 6am to 11pm and take place in cramped and squalid buildings, with teachers who have no training or child protection checks. The schools ban ‘secular knowledge’ and teach only religious texts in Yiddish and Hebrew meaning many leave unable to speak English or with any academic qualifications.
Campaigners and former pupils have said not enough is being done to close down the schools and to protect children, despite it being a criminal offence to run an illegal school.
The 34 children and 2 adults were rescued by emergency services after becoming trapped when the tide came in. The group had walked past a number of danger signs in English warning the cliff was impassable and were wearing ultra-Orthodox Jewish traditional dress rather than appropriate hiking gear.
The adults are said to have told authorities they were from a community centre in Stamford Hill, while the boys reportedly told authorities that they were “just friends [who decided] to group together and go for a day out”.
However, concerned members of the local community have told The Independent that the boys have been recognised as being pupils of an illegal Stamford Hill school out on a school trip with untrained and unregistered teachers. This has also been reiterated by a news report in Israeli media which describes the children as belonging to an illegal ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in Stamford Hill.
It is understood that the men lacked the basic awareness of child protection and safety issues involved due to lack of training.
It is also understood that the men and children walked past the warning signs as they were unable to speak or read English and were further endangered because they weren't wearing safe hiking gear for religious reasons.
An Independent reporter visited the school site following the events and multiple members of the public confirmed that the illegal school was operating and was involved in the incident.
Furthermore, internal documents from local authority Hackney council seen by The Independent show that they were first warned that the school was operating illegally in 2011 yet the school remains in operation. Campaigners and former pupils say the authorities are turning a blind eye to the schools and failing to protect children.
The Independent has chosen not to publish the school’s name or address to protect the children’s identities.
In response to the allegations, a spokesperson for the group told The Independent that they are not an illegal school but a community centre: “We take the concerns of health and safety and wellbeing of children in our care very seriously. We believe that as a result of the incident there are a lot of lessons that need to be learnt.
“We have therefore asked a foundation to carry out an independent internal investigation and make recommendations for the future. It is our [intention to] learn lessons for the future and to fully implement all recommendations. In the interim we have suspended all outside activity.”
A spokesperson for GesherEU, a charity which supports people leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, said: “This is not the first time children’s lives have been put in danger by, apparently, incompetent staff. Next time we could be seeing mothers wailing at the funerals of their sons or daughters unless ministers, the Department for Education and Hackney listen to our call for these settings to be properly monitored, for them to employ properly trained staff, and to ensure that these children are given the skills and secular education they will require to have choices and contribute to society when they are older.
“Both the Department for Education and Hackney continually say that they are liaising with each other, and nothing seems to happen. We know that the legislation relating to the monitoring, safeguarding and education standards in independent schools, unregistered settings and for home-educated children, is confusing and that it is inadequate when fundamentalist religious bodies are set on following their own narrow curriculum. We urge them to go to the ministers responsible to push through urgent changes to the legislation to give them the powers to make real change."
A spokesperson for the British Humanist Association said: “Unfortunately this school is far too typical of the illegal schools in Stamford Hill, in that both the Department for Education and Hackney Council have known about it for a long time, and yet in spite of repeated scandals involving the lack of any education the boys receive and the dire health and safety breaches, neither body has managed to take any concrete steps in shutting it down.
“As if it isn't controversial enough that these boys are denied any education, we now have an incident like this. What will it take for the Government to actually close the schools down? We will continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that closure happens.”
In response to the allegations, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Nothing is more important than keeping children safe. Where there are safeguarding issues local authorities must take immediate action to protect children and we are in contact with Hackney council to ensure they make this happen.”
A spokesperson for Hackney Council told The Independent they do not have any legal powers to close the schools and are conducting an investigation into the incident. They stated that they believed the children were from a school rather than the community centre but said that the school is not an illegal secondary school but a nearby legally run private primary school. After it was highlighted that this was not possible as the children in the incident were not of primary school age and sources outside the school site had confirmed it was the illegal school involved, Hackney Council declined to comment further.