Why parents must vote Tory
Conservative education plans will solve the places crisis in Jewish schools
Over the past couple of weeks, countless families have experienced heartache and stress as the rejection letters from Jewish primaries dropped through their letterboxes. As usual, there are simply not enough places in our faith schools to accommodate all our children. And while some will doubtless find a school place over the coming weeks or months - often after much trauma - many others will be locked out of a Jewish education forever, to the detriment of our entire community.
Each year, rejected parents cry out in anguish (not an exaggeration) at the situation, begging the community's leadership to help establish new primary schools in areas of need; local authorities to approve them; and philanthropists to fund them. Little happens, and the pressure on places is as acute as ever.
This is why the Conservative Party's plans for education deserve our support. More than any other policy in any party manifesto, they could potentially revolutionise our community, changing our Jewish school system for the better almost immediately.
At the moment, all applications for new schools must go through the local authorities, which often use their veto power to obstruct new institutions. If permission is granted, it is often several years until the schools can become state-aided, meaning that benefactors must be found and that schools which are established are out of financial reach for many who need them.
The Swedish model shows competition does wonders for standards
The Conservative suggestion is that groups of parents or teachers, educational charities and co-operatives would all be able to set up their own schools, according to their own vision, and receive state funding immediately. Permission for new schools will be granted directly by the Secretary of State for Education, bypassing the local authorities. The money would follow the pupils, with new schools receiving funds for every enrolled child as well as capital spending money from the existing Building Schools for the Future programme.
Of course, this does not mean that every plan will be approved. Parents will have to prove that there is demand for the kind of school they are proposing and that they have a viable business plan, which would also cover the school's ethos, curriculum and operation. The idea, though, is that the process will be simpler, quicker and far more likely to result in a new school. In addition, the party aims to make it harder for local authorities to block new schools using planning laws and to sell off land currently available for educational use.
For our own community this could mean a crucial surge in new school places in the areas where they are needed most. This would bring its own benefits. At the moment, parents are so desperate to get their child into a Jewish primary school that they apply everywhere and send their child wherever they are accepted. The result is that there is often very little fit between the schools' ethos and character, and the religious identities and educational needs of the pupils. More schools - particularly more schools set up directly by local parents - means that families would be able to choose the right school for their children, rather than taking what they are given.
The need to attract parents - rather than fight them off - will also force existing schools to raise their game. Our schools are generally very good, but they can all improve somewhere, be it in the area of Jewish studies, Hebrew teaching, general studies, extracurricular activities or special-needs provision, perhaps even in their attitude to said parents. As the Swedish model on which the Conservative plans are based shows only too clearly, competition does wonders for standards.
The Conservatives have already drafted the Bill which could make all this reality and intend to pass it before the next parliamentary recess starts in July. Presuming they win the election, we could be seeing these new schools approved within months, in time to help many families who received rejection letters from nurseries this year. Surely change we can believe in.
Miriam Shaviv is the JC's foreign editor