OPINION: How we’ve raised standards in Jewish studies for 20 years

OPINION: How we’ve raised standards in Jewish studies for 20 years

Pikuach director Jeffrey Leader
Pikuach director Jeffrey Leader
16 mr leader
Jeffrey Leader

by Jeffrey Leader, Director, Pikuach

IT’S OPEN evening and parents flood through the school gates to see their children’s class teachers. With no classroom, you sit in the hall and hope that someone – anyone! – will come and ask you how their child is ‘doing’ in Jewish studies.

This was the reality 20 years ago in many Jewish schools, where Jewish studies languished far behind secular studies. It’s not that parents didn’t care about their children’s Jewish education, but the social mix and the quality of secular education were often the determining factors in choosing a school.

There was low morale at the time among many JS teachers, with departments mainly staffed by unqualified practitioners steeped in Jewish knowledge but often lacking skills to impart that knowledge for a positive impact. The lack of a teaching qualification also meant career advancement in Jewish education was severely limited.

Today the picture is very different. Many schools are staffed by well-qualified Jewish studies teachers, many of whom occupy senior leadership roles including headship and deputy headship.

Why the change? Ofsted’s creation in 1992 subjected all maintained schools to the scrutiny of regular inspection. At first, religious education in faith schools was exempt from regular inspection, but the Education (Schools) Act 1992 required inspectors to report ‘on the quality of the denominational education provided by the school’. This requirement led directly to the creation of Pikuach, the UK’s only government accredited, Jewish inspection service. Pikuach (‘inspection’ in Hebrew) was the brainchild of Laurie Rosenberg, the then education officer of the Board of Deputies who saw that a Jewish inspection service would help raise the status of Jewish education. Jewish studies teachers would now be judged, like their secular colleagues, on their ability to plan, teach and assess the progress of their pupils. The UJIA joined in supporting this initiative. Today, Pikuach is supported solely by the Board.
Pikuach has carried out almost 200 inspections since its first in 1996. Its 30 inspectors are highly experienced, education professionals, three-quarters of whom are or have been head- teachers or deputy heads of Jewish day schools.

Assessing Jewish schools is not easy. There are no national Jewish standards and our inspectors have to judge each school across the religious spectrum according to its own aims and objectives. Unlike their Ofsted colleagues, our inspectors cannot disappear after an inspection. The Jewish educational community is a small one and there is no place to hide for an inspector who has given a school a less than favourable report.

At a national level, Pikuach is doing crucial work. It works closely with Ofsted and other faith providers to ensure that demands on our schools are not excessive and makes the government aware that our schools are not only shaping thefuture of the British-Jewish community but are also contributing to the development of young Jews who, like their predecessors, have so much to offer British society in general. We are particularly proud of our interfaith work. For the past three years, we have also trained Sikh inspectors.

Today, Pikuach celebrates its 20th anniversary. Although we have helped to raise standards, there is more to do. Jewish literacy, for example, is still a concern. Recent research shows that many children are leaving a lifetime in Jewish education unable to read Hebrew fluently. Our Inspection Handbook, based on Ofsted’s model, is too regulatory. We observe and make judgements on teaching quality, leadership and management, curriculum development and pupil achievement, but as well as focusing on what pupils know, we should also focus on what they think about their Jewish education. What impact is it making on their lives? A knowledgeable Jew is not necessarily a committed Jew.

Pikuach will spend more time talking to pupils. It will examine the role of informal education in shaping Jewish identity and will take a closer look at their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Research in 2014 revealed that schools are keen to achieve a high rating in this area.

Pikuach was not alone in improving Jewish educational provision, but it stands proud as the first major initiative to raise the standard of Jewish teaching and learning and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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