Missing out on Jewish school places has raised parental calls for a more transparent admissions policy, hears Caron Kemp
Happy, socially content and studious, Joshua Davidson is firmly settled in and enjoying life as a Year Eight pupil at JFS in Kenton.
A keen footballer, he already represents the school in tournaments and enjoys extra-curricular sporting and musical activities. But the journey to get Joshua to this point was something his mother Julie “wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy” and remains an emotive topic a year on.
Having attended Moriah Jewish Day School in Pinner since the age of four, Joshua is a regular shul-goer, adheres to the laws of kashrut and immerses himself in a traditional Jewish life.
Yet when the family applied for his transfer to secondary school, they were left without a place until winning an appeal just two months before the start of term.
Continuing his education within a Jewish framework was vitally important for both Joshua and his parents, who saw school as an extension and complement to home life. And with JCoSS in New Barnet and Yavneh College in Borehamwood having opened in recent years, the family did not foresee any issues with securing a place.
Yet Joshua was not offered any of his preferences and gradually, as he witnessed all his peers attain their school of choice, concern grew for the family. “The worry set in for us when each round of places being offered passed and we were still no better off,” recalls Julie. “We began to accept that there was a good chance that we would be left with nothing.”
And it wasn’t long before anxiety turned to anger. “By round three, some children had been offered more than one school, or were holding a place at a private and Jewish school,” she explains. “I became very mad with the system. After all, a Jewish education is one of the most crucial things you give to your child and being caught up in this lottery seemed completely unfair.”
Each school decides its own admissions criteria with, for example, JFS using a random allocation system and Yavneh assigning by distance. Some Jewish primary schools are offered priority entry to certain Jewish secondary schools.
By June, every place at the schools in question had been allocated and Joshua faced the start of a new academic year with nowhere to go. Having watched from the sidelines as his friends talked excitedly about their transition to secondary school together, the only option was to appeal.
Following a gruelling, emotional and highly stressful process in which Joshua’s family had to lay bare their story to an independent panel, including younger brother Zak’s birth via surrogacy and the family subsequently going through a conversion on his behalf, which heightened their religious convictions, Joshua was finally offered a place at JFS.
However, the whole process left a sour taste in Julie’s mouth. “There’s no doubt in my mind that JFS is the right environment for Joshua and he absolutely loves it there and is thriving, so of course to that end it was all worth it,” she concludes.
“But the system is so unfair and very unclear and I feel desperately upset at the thought of anyone else having to go through what we did. It forces you to do things you’re not proud of, it causes untold amounts of worry and is incredibly frightening for the children. Joshua was left very upset by it all, became withdrawn and noticeably lost weight during the process. There has to be another way.”
Julie’s sentiments are echoed by another mother, who wishes to remain anonymous. This mum only secured a place at JFS for her severely dyslexic daughter a month into the start of the school year. “Each time places were offered, we waited to hear some good news but it never came,” she recalls.
“We appealed to both Yavneh and JFS on the grounds of our daughter’s educational needs and did manage to subsequently get a place at Yavneh. “But it was never ideal for us as she was just 11 and had to travel alone on the train from Hatch End to get there, and she wasn’t getting home until 5.30pm. “It wasn’t a sustainable situation and we were delighted when a place became available at JFS at the end of September.”
Yet she recognises that the system encourages self-interest at any cost. “I had to do everything I possibly could for my child,” she admits. “The reality is I had no choice and while it was a horrendous process and I realise our daughter was biding her time at Yavneh, given the options, most parents would do the same. “The problem lies in the system, which is totally unfair and fundamentally flawed. There simply isn’t enough transparency in the process or cohesion between the schools and the councils. “
It is such a highly competitive and traumatic process and it is our children who are suffering because of it.” • In next week’s Jewish News: the experts’ response