Grade F for admissions

By Keren David, November 11, 2011
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So, your child is transferring to secondary school? You've filled in your form, debated Jewish versus non-Jewish, private or state? The all-important first-place choice is made.

Hah! Good luck with that. Forgive my cynical tone. My son applied for schools this time last year. When the form was filled in, we felt happy, lucky, somewhat smug. By March, when the offers came through, we were full of bitterness, anxiety and frothing fury.

We had been lulled into complacency by the prediction that the opening of a new school in north London, JCoSS, would mean a surplus of places in all Jewish secondary institutions. But when the first offers were made, our son was just one of many who found he had no place at a Jewish school.

You may be in a more privileged position than we were. Children at Clore Shalom in Shenley, for example, have the golden ticket. It is a feeder school for two secondary options - JCoSS and Yavneh College. Not so for pupils at almost all of the mainstream Orthodox primary schools. They must queue behind their Progressive counterparts for places at JCoSS and alongside them in the lottery for JFS. It is these children who are often left without offers, and it's hard to explain such a complicated system to them.

Perhaps this was the first real test of the JFS ruling

None of this matters if you believe those who say that there will not be enough Jewish children to go around. Susy Stone, head of Akiva school, warned that those who sought to open new Jewish state schools were pursuing a "dangerous strategy" that might harm the excellent institutions we already have. Akiva received more than two applications for each of its 60 places this year, but still decided not to expand.

Excellence is all very well for those on the inside, but it is useless to anyone else. Mrs Stone admits that, for those who can't get a place at her school, it is "heartbreaking". Actually, it is worse. A child who doesn't get the Jewish education he or she thought was their birthright can feel rejected and alienated.

The more Jewish schools that open, the worse it gets. It becomes more unusual to be Jewish in a non-Jewish school, and there are fewer communal facilities for such children. Parents worry that their child will be ostracised. As our daughter is at a local comprehensive, with friends from all social and ethnic backgrounds, I know to discount most of that. But it is not easy to continue Jewish education or have a Jewish social life when so many children get those at school.

Why were there such problems for the class of September 2011? A freak "millennium baby" bulge? Or perhaps this was the first real test of the JFS ruling, which opened the admissions process to children not previously considered halachically Jewish. Add to that the economic crisis - right now, who can afford to take on private school fees?

It certainly seems that families who would not previously have considered Jewish schools are doing so. I recently spoke to a dad who was unhappy with the local state options. He'd assumed Jewish schools were out of the question; he identified as Jewish but his mother and wife were not. When I told him that all he had to do under the new rules was join a synagogue, he almost fell out of his chair with excitement.

If you open excellent schools, demand will increase. People like that father do not seem to have figured in the community's strategic planning. But if counting the unborn is complicated mathematics, counting people's ambitions for their children is even harder.

My son eventually got a place at a Jewish school. It wasn't his first choice, but he's very happy there. Most of his friends eventually got places, too. We know a lot of children who are not at the school they wanted but they all seem to have settled well.

So was it a big fuss about nothing? Well, it certainly didn't feel that way. It can't be good to have an admissions system which feels chaotic, unfair and fails to deliver first choices. Year six kids and parents, hold on to your hats. You might have a bumpy ride ahead.

Keren David's latest novel is 'Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery' (Frances Lincoln)

    Last updated: 10:38am, November 11 2011