There is a photo of Rachel Fink on a shelf in her new office at JFS that greatly amuses pupils and staff.
In it, a smiling Rachel, aged 11, is wearing neatly-pressed JFS uniform ahead of her first day at the school in 1980. “It was a gift from my sisters,” says Rachel.
“I showed it to everyone here and they laughed when I said I didn’t know what was more socially unacceptable – the long white socks I’m wearing or the terrible haircut. I can blame my mother for both.”
Rachel laughs easily and to be able to do so when starting the daunting job of running the biggest Jewish school in Europe is a testament to her suitability.
That she chose to start now, when some of her students are still caught up in exam hell and others are demob-happy was intentional.
“I told staff I wanted the opportunity to look, listen and learn,” she says. “To make a judgement without really understanding the nuts and bolts would be a challenge.”
When Rachel was head of Hasmonean Girls’ School, a role she held for seven years, she spoke to me about the challenges of shaping a 21st century citizen.
While addressing subjects from mental health and well-being to the perils of social media, she stressed her main objective as an educator was to teach pupils to problem solve alone and not compare themselves with others in terms of success.
“I asked students that if we were all meant to be the same, why are there so many of us?” she said then, and it is this belief she brings to JFS. That her intention has always been to help every student become a whole person, regardless of ability, will be reassuring to the parents of children about to make the transition from primary to secondary in September.
“It is a difficult time,” Rachel admits. “Some children sail in and adapt easily. But a fair few struggle with the environment and lots of new teachers, while others have difficulties socially and find it all overwhelming.
“They are also going through adolescence, with all the hormonal changes that brings, and sometimes your child will seem really grown up in one area and not in another. Kids also put pressure on themselves. My advice to parents
is to know when to ask for help.”
Rachel continues: “It is not wrong to admit you are struggling – but if you genuinely feel you have an issue, make sure you are telling the right people. You can choose between telling the school or the rest of the world. And if you choose the latter, do you really want the problem solved?“
Doing her job while parenting four children allows Rachel to speak from experience and understand Jewish parents want the best for their own. “But we express that desire in different ways and even if we don’t agree on everything, it should be a cordial discussion.
“It is also important to remember that children join the school as children but leave as adults. We must prepare them for the outside world, and that means developing the resilience to manage their own issues. Harsh but wise parents let children solve their own problems, so they become independent. That’s the challenge.”
As the public face of a school four times bigger than Hasmonean, Rachel will have the community spotlight on her at all times, and there were raised eyebrows at the appointment of a head, who covers her head. But to draw conclusions from her scarves would be a mistake as, on the day we meet, she is wearing a badge acknowledging JFS support for the LGBTQ community.
“The sixth form gave it to me this morning,” she says. “But I could have worn it at Hasmonean too, which would surprise people.”
Mindfulness, social media and gender issues are all up for discussion by Rachel, who is a graduate of Cambridge University’s Coexist interfaith programme and also belongs to a Partnerships for Jewish Schools’ working party on mental health.
Particularly impressive was her work with the Open Door Project at JW3, which introduced Hasmonean girls to Muslim pupils at the Islamia School in Kilburn, and she hopes to initiate similar programmes with JFS and other schools.
It’s arguable that as the first head girl to be appointed by former headteacher Jo Wagerman, Rachel has the advantage when it comes to understanding JFS but, interestingly, her vision for the school is not based on where it stands on the league tables, important though that is.
“I did terribly in my A levels – really badly, and that was no reflection on JFS,” she reveals. “For a long time, we thought there was only one path to success, but pupils must realise their potential to succeed and that may lie in a completely different area from someone else.
“Do we want our children to succeed so we can say ‘my child the doctor’ or ‘my child the lawyer’ and think of them as trophies? Or do we want them to lead happy, successful lives and be proud because they are moral and upstanding? Let’s not forget the world needs all sorts of people.“
Schools, however, just need a headteacher like Rachel Fink.