Top educators this week spoke out against a “silent crisis” looming over Jewish primary schools, warning of a “dire lack of leadership” with up to half a dozen schools currently looking for a head-teacher.
Robert Leach, the head-teacher at Michael Sobell Sinai School, Europe’s largest Jewish primary, led the charge, asking: “Where have all the head-teachers gone? We are facing a silent crisis in Jewish education.”
In the last three years, six new Jewish free schools have opened their doors, with four in North London, leading to what Leach and others described as a “proliferation” of Jewish primary schools.
“New schools seem to pop up every term, but there is very little regard for the drain that this places on an already shallow pool of leadership,” he said. “In the last two years alone, four new schools opened and all were built within a two-mile radius of several other pre-existing Jewish schools.”
Ros Levin, head-teacher at Ilford Jewish Primary School, agreed whole-heartedly, saying: “There is definitely a crisis in north-west London. The deputies are not aspiring to be head-teachers and there’s very little planning. The communal bodies need to get everyone talking to each other.”
Echoing those thoughts was an experienced Chair of Governors at a top London Jewish, who asked to remain anonymous.
She said: “There is great concern across the board about the proliferation of schools. They can’t all survive. It’s just not sustainable. Not only is there a dire lack of leadership, there is also a huge struggle to find Jewish Studies teachers. There is just not enough suitably trained staff.”
Since the government supported free schools, she said, there was a reluctance to speak out publicly because “it’s become a political issue”.
Community leaders agreed to some extent, with Board of Deputies Senior Vice-President Laura Marks saying: “There is a need for more teachers in the right places qualified and willing to work within schools with a Jewish ethos if standards are to be maintained.”
But she thought Jewish primary schools had been “a great success story” and that the wave of new schools could only be a good thing. “More places at good Jewish schools empowers parents by giving them more options,” she said, adding that the Board would monitor the situation.
Schools looking for permanent head-teacher vacancies include Independent Jewish Day School, Rosh Pinah, Menorah Foundation, Moriah and North Cheshire, said Leach, and Ilford Jewish Primary’s head will retire soon.
Today’s situation was predicted by some, with Akiva’s head-teacher Susy Stone saying in 2011: “The rush to create more Jewish schools is a dangerous strategy for the community.”
Education experts played down the issue. Alistair Falk, director at Partnership for Jewish Schools (PaJeS), recognised that head-teacher recruitment was a national problem, particularly with faith school, but said: “Our current head-teacher pool is probably the most talented, professional and Jewishly-literate we have ever experienced.”
Stone recognised that in areas of London the problem was “acute” but defended Falk’s PaJeS which, she said, offered good oversight. Instead she felt the problem was more basic than a lack of planning.
“Leadership is not a fun place to be at the moment,” she said. “People are shying away from the senior posts and you can understand why, with a new curriculum and Ofsted are breathing down our necks. It’s a thankless task.”
Elsewhere, Rosh Pinah’s Honourary Principal Rabbi Lister said they were working around the problem by appointing a non-Jewish interim head who could work closely alongside himself and the Head of Jewish Studies.
“It can be a good workaround,” he said. “Obviously appointing a Jewish head-teacher helps for a variety of reasons, but if you can’t, then needs must.”
Outside London schools revealed that they were facing similar situations. Andrew Joseph, Chair of Governors at North Cheshire Jewish Primary School, revealed that his school – like Rosh Pinah – had been unable to appoint a Jewish head-teacher. He said: “I agree with a lot of what [Leach] says, I think Jewish primary schools across the UK are struggling to recruit suitably able head-teachers and suitably trained Jewish Studies teachers. We’re fishing in an ever-smaller pond.”
Joseph revealed that in north Manchester, as in London, there was fierce competition for pupils. “Often, one school succeeds at another’s expense, but there are several other factors to consider. Not only can head-teachers retire in their 50s but Jewish schools are often graded as ‘outstanding.’ That means any new head can only go one way. It’s a bit like David Moyes taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United!”