Louisa Shulman looks at how things turned out for three families whose children weren’t offered their preferred school
Sam and Gary were delighted when their first child got in to Brooklands Primary School in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was the perfect start in life, and close to where they lived in Golders Green. However they always knew that they wanted their boys to go to Jewish secon1dary school. “Lee went to JFS and was famous for saying ‘if it’s good enough for me…’. But when I went online to see what school we had been offered, the name flashing in front of me was a school we didn’t want,” says Sam.
They were really disappointed, but remained hopeful. However, despite writing and phoning, nothing came through on second, third or even fourth round. And then they panicked. “We realised that if we wanted Joshua to have a good education and Jewish friends we would have to consider private school. This had never been in our game plan, but a wise mum once sad to me: ‘Always give your children what is best for them’ and I knew we had to do this.”
They went to see Immanuel College in Bushey and fell in love with it. Joshua sat the exam, was offered the place, and Sam went back to work to pay the fees.
Two weeks before term started, they went on holiday and while they were away, Joshua was offered a place at JFS. “You’d think we would have jumped at it – here was the Jewish education we had hoped for, for free! But in truth, JFS scared Joshua. He was a shy, quirky boy and we knew he’d be better off in the Immanuel environment. So we turned it down.”
Now in Year 8, Joshua is happy, confident, and passionate about his school. He eschewed a big barmitzvah in favour of a very special, spiritual one in lsrael, shared with a boy with Down’s syndrome. “Joshua can bensch and he can pray, he can stand up and speak in front of 300 people, and, above all, he is proud to be a Jew,” says Sam. “I credit Immanuel College with all of this. We’ve taken our younger son out of Brooklands and sent him to Immanuel primary school, and we have moved to Bushey. I really believe everything happens for a reason.”
Lynsey and Hanan from Finchley had really hoped their son Eli would go to Rimon, a modern Orthodox primary school in Golders Green.
“My husband and I have a strong Jewish identity and we want our kids to have a Jewish education with children from like-minded families,” they explain. “We are observant and none of our local secular primaries would have fitted the bill as there are so few observant Jewish families at these schools nowadays. Rimon is quite small as it is new and only has Reception and Year 1 at the moment. I was excited by their ethos and vision.”
Putting Rimon at the top of the list, they applied to six Jewish schools and were offered their fourth choice – Woolfson Hillel in Southgate. “This was really impractical being so far away,” says Lynsey. “It’s also a really large school, and that year they added a bulge class to make it a three-form entry. On the plus side, if they hadn’t done that, we may not have got a place there either, as Eli wasn’t in the nursery, which used to get priority (this changed this year).
“Luckily, I got sorted with a rota and he started in September. Because they made a third class, his own class was smaller, which allowed him to settle in well. He is really happy – he’s made friends, we’ve made friends, and now we wouldn’t dream of sending him or our daughter, when it’s her turn, anywhere else.”
Jo and Lee from Potters Bar were so determined to send their children to Woolfson Hillel that they put in a call to the school even before Jo was pregnant. However, when the time came, not only did they not get offered Hillel, they did not get any of the Jewish schools they’d applied for and Talia was destined for the local primary school, Brookmans Park.” They begged and pleaded, the shul wrote letters on their behalf, but it all fell on deaf ears.
So Talia went to Brookmans Park. She was the only Jewish girl in her class, and Jo arranged a meeting with the school to talk about this. “They were incredible,” says Jo. “They invited her Jewish nursery school teacher to come and teach the children about Jewish festivals and me to come and talk about Shabbat. They learnt about our religion and Talia learnt about theirs. She built up a lovely circle of friends and she even invited them to come for Friday night dinners. She was really happy.”
And then one day, just before Easter, Jo received a phone call from Hillel offering her a place. I told Talia and her little face fell,” says Jo. She said: ’Please don’t make me leave my school, Mummy.’ I burst into tears –tears of happiness mixed up with indecision,” says Jo.
The school put Jo and Lee under huge pressure to give an answer straight away, and they wanted her to start at the beginning of the Pesach term, which meant Talia leaving her school that day and never going back to say goodbye. Friends were pressurising them too, telling them they were making a huge mistake if they turned it down, that they and Talia would lose out socially. “But my daughter was settled, happy and thriving. And above all, she didn’t want to leave.” They turned down the place.
“I know we made the right decision for Talia,” says Jo. “She was so happy at school, she had great friends and she did really well academically. When it was our son Ollie’s turn two years later, we sent him there too. I made sure to send the kids to Jewish Rainbows, Brownies and to cheder and my son plays football at Excel with all the other Jewish boys. I do think that perhaps I have missed out – I don’t have the wide social circle a lot of my friends with children at Jewish schools have. However our kids have the best of both worlds and we think they are more well-rounded having been at a non-Jewish primary school.”
When it was time to apply for secondary schools, Talia voiced a preference to go to a Jewish school. “She was older now and all her outside school friends were applying to JFS and JCoSS. We went to see JCoSS and fell in love with it, so we applied. But the same thing happened again – the only school Talia was offered was our local state comprehensive, which had demoralising GCSE results and many more boys than girls.
After a never-ending round of appeals for a more suitable school, the answer was still no and Jo felt they had no choice but to send her to a private school, where there would be other Jewish children and a better education.
“Private was never an option for us,” she says Jo. “We had to re-evaluate everything and somehow find a way to do it. She is very, very happy and doing really well. Ultimately, when it comes to your children’s education, that’s all that counts.”