The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births.
After a successful interview with the headmistress, I was offered the job. I won’t name it, but it is a private day school attended by 300 girls from North West London aged between 11 and 18. It is one of many such schools to be found across the UK. The mood inside was completely alien to any educational establishment I’d entered previously – quiet, calm and dignified, more like a place of worship than four walls containing hundreds of hormonal teens.
The girls here, though, were different, inhabiting a tiny bubble constructed for them by their community. Banned from going on the internet, reading unsanctioned books and newspapers, or listening to the radio. Jeans and make-up are taboo and boyfriends are completely unheard of. The television in particular is regarded as “a sewer in the living room.” No girl is accepted by the school unless her parents first sign an agreement that they don’t own one of these demonic sets. This censorship is so successful that not one of my pupils had heard of Madonna, Rihanna or Beyoncé. They are vigilantly protected from the hyper-sexualisation of the modern world we’re so used to that it’s become the norm. The result is a childhood preserved and extended to its full limits, not curtailed by worldly knowledge of adult things. What struck me most profoundly in those first few weeks, as I compared the girls to the numerous twelve and thirteen year-olds I’d taught (some of whom had had children at that age), was that at 12, 13, 14, 15 these girls are still innocent, living the lives of Enid Blyton characters in the 21st Century. And it was beautiful. They were vivacious and lively; not downtrodden, meek or mild, but bursting with life, and generally very happy.