The chasm between key leadership roles in Jewish schools and individuals capable of filling them is growing, finds Caron Kemp.
It is no secret that our schools are struggling. Not in academic prowess or providing a loving, nurturing environment for our children.
Not even anymore in delivering on the once fraught issue of school places. Now the worry is not where our offspring will learn, but who will be there to teach them.
The well-publicised inability of Rosh Pinah School to fill the void created when former headteacher Anthony Wolfson suddenly resigned from his post last year, brought into the public domain a concern that had been bubbling for a while.
While Michael Sobell Sinai School headteacher Robert Leach was the first to deem the situation a “silent crisis” earlier this year, it was confirmed when the Edgware school failed to find a suitable permanent replacement leader that they were just a small part of a wider leadership problem.
So why, in a community of high achievers and aspirational individuals where such an enormous emphasis is placed on the value of a decent education, can we not fill the top jobs in our schools?
Despite having been the headteacher at Finchley’s Akiva School for more than six years, Susy Stone highlights one of the reasons teachers could be repelled from the role.
“There is a lot of pressure in education. You are very accountable and if you don’t meet the standards it’s a lonely place to be. But that is especially apparent in the community.
“We have very high expectations because education has a very high profile. And teachers are in the frontline and expected to deliver the best.”
“Plus you also have your community profile to consider. You are not just a teacher you are also a member of a synagogue and have family to think about. That makes it less attractive.”
But unquestionably additional pressures placed on prospective headteachers from overbearing parents and the pitfalls of working in such a small community are not the only issues at stake.
Earlier this year no less than six of our schools were on the lookout for a headteacher.
“Everyone knows that nationally there is a shortage of headteachers and to some extent senior leaders in schools,” explains Alastair Falk who was the founding director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools set up in 2012 to provide services, support and strategy to Jewish schools across the UK
However, it appears that he may be overlooking one vital issue.
“I am happy to work but am also trying to raise children and they are my priority,” admits one Jewish teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I have had to see people who once worked under me become more senior but on balance I’m content with that.
“Working women are under such enormous pressures and being a school headteacher is like being the managing director of a corporation. The additional strain would ultimately not be worth it for me.”
But is it a matter of perception?
“We are not doing a good job of selling the teaching profession to talented people or selling leadership roles to those already in teaching,” says Marc Shoffren, headteacher at one of the community’s newest Jewish primary schools, Alma in Finchley.
“We need to make it a more attractive prospect and give incentives to people such as providing funds for further study. Most people broadly agree that schools are only successful if they have good leaders.
“We have good leadership pathways and structures in our community so we need to use these to encourage more people to come and teach and lead in our schools.”
However, given that in the last three years alone six new Jewish free schools have opened their doors, with four in north London, critics have blamed the sudden surge in educational establishments for stretching our limited resources even thinner.
“People who have established new free schools had to overcome many challenges,” admits Shoffren, whose school opened last September.
“The Government created the ability to open free schools and people took the opportunity. It is great that all the new schools were so successful in recruiting heads.
“For me, the problem isn’t the new schools, since we know there is demand for them, but it’s about how we develop teachers into becoming school leaders.”
But this stance is not unanimous.
“Undoubtedly the increase in the number of Jewish schools has exacerbated this situation but in turn it has solved other problems,” accepts Susy Stone.
“Nevertheless, with regards to human resources we are fishing in a very small pool.”
So, without enough teachers aspiring to greater career heights, does it really matter if more schools follow Rosh Pinah’s lead and outsource their recruitment to the non-Jewish world in whatever form that might take?
“While we need a balance, Jewish teachers aren’t always automatically the best people for the job and I have seen non-Jewish headteachers do wonders for some of our schools so for me it is a very viable option,” states the teacher.
But for Alastair Falk, it is not an idyllic situation. “We have some great headteachers in our schools that are not Jewish but clearly we want a leader who understands and represents the ethos of that school,” he reflects.
“I am sure that most schools would ideally like to find a headteacher that shares that ethos.”
Yet while Falk is proud that Partnerships for Jewish Schools is working hard on strategies to both encourage new leadership and support headteachers, he readily admits “it is likely to get worse before it gets better.”
Still, it is not all doom and gloom.
“Let’s be clear that this is an opportunity, not a threat for Jewish schools,” explains Marc Shoffren.
“What this whole situation does is detract from the excellent and dynamic work schools are doing and for that reason it is essential for us to work together as a community to support and develop leadership and teaching in Jewish schools.”