There’s never a dull week as a headteacher…and especially when you lead a Jewish school during the week and a Christian community on Sundays. In my Church life it’s the middle of Advent – a season of waiting in the midst of darkness, with themes of hope and judgement.
At school, meanwhile, Chanukah approaches with its themes of standing against oppression and assimilation, and we’re in the middle of the month of Kislev – a word connected on the one hand to hope and on the other hand to foolishness. All in all, then, a perfect time for a general election.
There’s plenty to be hopeful about at JCoSS. As we approach our tenth birthday it’s good to look back over the history of a project that some called purev foolishness. Fears in some quarters that we would damage the Jewish community and undermine its schools now look exaggerated (to say the least). We are proud to have joined those schools in friendship and mutual support, to have expanded the offer of Jewish secondary education and to have taken our place with them in the top echelons of league tables.
Our most recent accolade as Sunday Times Greater London State Secondary School of the Year gives us all the more pride given the range of our intake. We have a higher proportion of students with significant special needs than any Barnet school, and take many times more than our fair share compared to other Jewish schools even before factoring in our autism provision. Yet our results and Oxbridge successes – as well as the quality and range of all our students’ destinations – are proof that excellence and inclusion go hand in hand, rather than pulling against each other. There’s hope there for all.
Nothing expresses hope more than a commitment to expand, and this week we are submitting exciting plans for a new building so that we can do just that. Nine extra classrooms will allow to us to offer 30 more places each year – making permanent the ‘bulge’ classes we already have in two year groups. The numbers wanting Jewish schools continues to rise and we are well placed to be a key part of the long term solution. Our waiting lists certainly prove there is more than enough demand for JCoSS to justify the expansion.
But growing a school, like everything else, is harder when there’s uncertainty. Will there be additional funding, making good the decline over the last 10 years? There are grounds for scepticism as well as optimism. How might the outcome of the election affect demand for Jewish places? It could go up or down, and not necessarily evenly across the community. The status of faith schools and of private schools, the future of Ofsted, the personality and policies of ministers, even the Brexit outcome all make a difference.
JCoSS has a pioneering spirit: our commitment to open hearts and minds has hope at its core. But that does not make us immune to the darkness. The last few weeks have been difficult for leaders in all walks of public life, and our pluralist Judaism does not make it any easier. We thrive on honest debate, but the complexities and competing narratives of political life are putting the whole of society on edge and I see the effect visibly in students, colleagues and parents.
So I confess to experiencing some relief when Archbishop Justin lent support to the recent statement on antiSemitism from Chief Rabbi Mirvis. With a foot in two camps as I have, it helped to have the values we have in common underlined, even while there is sincere dissent within both communities. Perhaps the key common value is shared humanity – or as we say at JCoSS, being a Mensch. Looking at what humanity is capable of there’s both hope and foolishness in that; but holding together things that pull apart…well, it’s what JCoSS does!