Who are the people and organisations that really make our vibrant community tick? Continuing our series, Stephen Oryszczuk goes behind the scenes to discover what life is like at Anglo-Jewry’s most well-known organisations. Here, he visits Sinai Primary School
You hear Sinai Primary School before you see it. Which is a good job, because otherwise you’d struggle to find it.
The approach is via a complete lack of signposts and a collection of subdued suburban streets. Once there, you realise you’re next door to ‘big school’ – Kenton’s JFS – a place of memory to many.
I’m let in by one of the community’s friendliest layers of security, wondering if their smiles belie chaos inside. Standing in reception, little people scurry between classrooms and cloakrooms, as I wait for clearance and the all-important badge.
Beyond, there’s the adult bit, which offers the relative safety of the staff room. This houses teachers, tea and coffee-making facilities, lime green chairs, red sofas and books by Howard Marks, a Welsh drug dealer who worked with Palestinian terrorists to make his fortune. I can only assume it’s not a set text.
Sinai has had a splash of paint of late, and it does feel fresh. Moreover, it doesn’t feel like the largest Jewish primary school in Europe. I had images of Stalinist tower blocks bordered by long lines of barbed wire fencing stretching off into the distance (schools in Manchester are a little different…), but this is almost cosy.
The admittedly-brisk tour takes only 15 minutes, given by deputy head Juliette, a former pupil intimately familiar with all the nooks and crannies despite being only three weeks into the job. To say there’s a buzz is completely appropriate – it’s a hive of activity, with teaching areas, tech hubs, games rooms, halls, studios, gyms and everything in between.
Within five minutes, I ask for another tour. Thankfully, the lovely PR chaperone turns up, so I get it.
Top of the Sinai tree is Robert Leach, the hard-but-fair head who arrived from Pardes House, where he was resuscitator-in-chief.
At Sinai, he made some similarly sweeping changes both to people and processes, but two years later things are stable and much improved. He is ably assisted by Hayley, who should be cloned and distributed to headteachers everywhere. Shelley, a top City lawyer who gave it up for something more challenging, and Michelle, who sparkles so brightly you can see her from space, together make up the intrepid trio that rule the back office roost.
Front of house, and altogether more beautiful than grizzly site manager Simon, is Louise, patiently fielding queries and calls from anxious parents, which must be an absolute joy. She looks like she’s holding up quite well, but it is only 10.30am.
Also highly visible on the day I visit is head of Jewish studies Rabbi Goldmeier (or Nicky as he asks to be called) who’s preparing to greet the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, and Herman Martyn – a school governor still gracing the stage and sharp as a razor aged 82. Herman can – and will – tell you stories about how, as a 21-year old clerk, he was sent to Cardiff to check that struggling businessman Michael Sobell (who later funded the school and whose name was given to it) had not misplaced any of Herman’s boss’ radios (he hadn’t).
You can tell it’s a Jewish school when the medical room is more social hang-out than sick bay.
Matron Helen is showing me her new Peppa Pig duvet cover when a little girl whose leg is hanging off screeches to the door. She’s been running in the playground and fallen. After some detailed diagnostics and a healing 20-second discussion about the dangers of screaming around concrete corners like a thing unhinged, the wee one’s leg miraculously re-grows and she’s off, back out into the wild, as fast as she came in.
“Last week we found out that a boy had been leaving class halfway through lessons, telling his teacher he needed to come here to use his inhaler,” says Helen. “He doesn’t have an inhaler!”
Upstairs, Mr Anders is teaching mosaics in his art class, with the children practicing on paper before taking to tiles. His students have recently designed the high-profile entrance sign for a high-profile Jewish institution, which he proudly shows me. “Now, why are we practicing on paper?” he asks the class. “So we can mess it up,” says a doe-eyed youngster enthusiastically cutting shapes.
In Mrs Frankel’s Countdown class (it’s probably not called that but that’s what I’ll call it, because that what they’re playing), the children are given the famous 30-second countdown for the letters: UIIWDNGPA.
“Right, who has any six-letter words?” she asks. A dozen little hands shoot up. “Weding,” says one. “Wining,” says another. “Pading” offers a third.
“Oh dear,” says Mrs Frankel. “I see we’re going to have to revisit double letters…”
Elsewhere, Mrs Malin’s music class is rehearsing a chorus at full blast (“I’m a hip-hoppy kid and you’ll never catch me nappin’, no matter where I go you’ll always hear me rappin’”), while Rabbi Dovid’s Jewish studies class are physically demonstrating the six ways to pray (standing, sitting, bowing, singing, chest-beating and in silence).
“OK, what rules should we follow when praying?” he asks his young charges. A boy at the back raises his hand in confidence. “Don’t pray too fast,” he intones. “Or you’ll get a sore throat.”
Walking through the corridors is an absolute pleasure. The ingenuity of the kids is on show everywhere, especially in their design work. I can’t remember even hoping to be this good. The best our teachers got was a selection of handprints and a kid with a blue nose because he’d picked it shortly after.
Here, they produce Picasso-esque masterpieces and – as in Miss Platt’s class (were she a secondary school teacher, all the boys would fancy her), diary entries written as if they were German Jews living in Berlin in 1938.
In other areas too, the school excels. The technology lab, with its tablet computers and bean cushions, looks like the sort of place you’d find brain-storming Google executives.
At times, Sinai seems less like a school than a staging post to CERN. The day’s coming to an end. In Reception and Nursery, teachers dance with knee-high people who are by now packed and ready to be transferred to mum.
I, too, dance out. It’s been a great day. Not even anonymous streets and a lack of any idea as to the way home can dampen my mood.