By Alastair FALK, Executive Director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools.
There may never be a better time to be a Jewish parent in London. There is a real choice of communal schools, almost all of which have been classified as either outstanding or good by one of the world’s toughest inspection regimes.
The free school policy has allowed parents to create primary schools that are bringing fresh ideas and options to Jewish education. And parents continue to benefit from government support that covers most of the day-to-day costs of running Jewish schools.
Then why is there talk of crisis?
Things may seem even more confusing when we recall that most of the “primary school crisis“ stories of recent years have been about the apparent lack of school places, not the surplus suggested in last week’s issue of the Jewish News.
The reality is, as always, a complex mix of the general and specifically Jewish. Government policies continue to encourage the setting up of new ‘free’ schools, while at the same time chipping away at the idea of single faith intakes.
Meanwhile, from a community perspective, the key issue is the changing demographic of London’s Jewish population. Some of these challenges were predicted in the Jewish Leadership Council’s 2008 report on the future of Jewish schools, one of whose outcomes was the creation of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (Pajes) to try to provide a more strategic overview.
This year the community is even better placed to see the broader patterns of demographic change through the recent census. Couple this with the sibling data Pajes has been collecting and it’s reasonable to say that there probably are now sufficient primary places.
But this global picture may be of little help if the places aren’t where most young Jewish families live. And the answer of a free market education policy encouraging parents to set up more schools to meet demand is not really sustainable in a shrinking Jewish community.
If we agree that in absolute numbers we are at, or pretty near, the limit, the challenge is how to serve the new Jewish populations, without leaving other Jewish schools increasingly empty of Jewish children.
This requires a serious look at our school infrastructure and some potentially tough conversations. Happily, the climate is much more open to this kind of joined-up thinking. In 2009, for example, when the immediate issue was potential surplus places in secondary schools, we invited all the London mainstream secondary headteachers to an advertising agency to discuss constructing a campaign to increase the total numbers. The result was a jointly planned and funded website highlighting the huge benefits of Jewish schooling – www.findajewishschool.org.
Co-operation happens in other areas, too. Ask school governors and headteachers about their most immediate sense of crisis, and they will tell you about the lack of suitably trained teachers of Jewish studies and Ivrit.
Yet 2014 will see a new undergraduate degree in Jewish education and two new school-led consortia to train teachers. All this is a result of communication, strategic thinking and headteachers working in partnership.
This has to be the way forward. Ideas from general education may well help. If schools really cannot find suitable headteachers, for example, then why not consider the now fairly common model of an executive headteacher overseeing more than one school?
And if parents want a more local primary school, then a successful existing one could consider either splitting its site, so that at least the youngest children don’t have to travel, or sponsoring a new free school or primary academy?
Or perhaps community sponsored transport to existing facilities is a cheaper and more cost effective option than building a new school? Should one of our next projects be to help develop clusters of Jewish primary and secondary schools?
These are all important questions requiring careful deliberation and joined-up thinking.
One thing is clear. If we are to attract the next generation of Jewish teachers and headteachers and to help them build education for a thriving Jewish future, schools cannot go it alone.