Scotland's only Jewish school

Vanessa Thomson in her new surrounds

Vanessa Thomson in her new surrounds

In close on 50 years, Scotland's sole Jewish primary school, Calderwood Lodge, has been at heart of Glasgow Jewry, educating most of its children.

Now, with new head Vanessa Thomson at the helm, the state-aided school is searching for fresh ways of promoting itself to both Jewish and non-Jewish parents. And like Jewish schools in other declining communities, it faces the dilemma of how best to preserve a Jewish ethos when numbers fall.

Formerly acting head of another Glasgow primary, the 43-year-old mother-of-two is neither Jewish nor Scottish. She says erstwhile colleagues were surprised when she took the job. "They were thinking: 'Why when you're not Jewish?'. But I was thinking: 'Why not?' People who know me well haven't asked that question because they knew I'd be comfortable with it."

Nonetheless, with little experience of Judaism, Mrs Thomson faced a steep learning curve. She is working through a large pile of books supplied by Jewish studies principal teacher Margolit Borowski and has taken on board a key piece of advice from her predecessor Christine Haughney - do not shake hands with the rabbi.

Drawing on some decorative expertise at the Glasgow school

Drawing on some decorative expertise at the Glasgow school

Calderwood has 145 pupils and a 60-place nursery. Applicants are not asked their religion but it is estimated that Jewish pupils account for just under 70 per cent of the roll, a proportion which is likely to decline.

New Glasgow Jewish Representative Council president Eddie Isaacs says the school's role in local Jewish life "cannot be overstated. I'm proud to say that all my three children were educated at Calderwood Lodge. Whilst accepting the freedom of parents to choose the education they would wish for their children, I would urge them to send them to Calderwood Lodge."

Mrs Thomson does not envision any major change in the foreseeable future. "But we certainly can't wait around and just see when it happens. We need to put Calderwood on the map so that Jewish and non-Jewish parents see that Calderwood is a good choice.

"Developing our nursery and early years' education in terms of the staff expertise is something that's very important for the future."

The head also feels the school needs to find ways of being more inclusive to children of other faiths, without impacting on its Jewishness. Most of the non-Jewish pupils are Muslim.

"We are building on being inclusive in the way non-denominational schools are inclusive, so that non-Jewish children can see that their religion is celebrated and valued, alongside their festivals. It doesn't mean that we turn things on their head in terms of what's been established in the past. Other religions are seen from a Jewish perspective. We're just opening the doors of understanding."

For example, a class of seven- and eight-year-olds has been studying a topic based on Islam which highlights similarities to Judaism.

"The CJE [Calderwood Jewish Education] staff developed this and realised how powerful it was within the class," Mrs Thomson reported. "So my conversations have been about how to keep that going."

It is Margolit Borowski's task to keep Calderwood Jewish studies in line with the mainstream Curriculum for Excellence running in Scottish schools.

"We're looking forward to refreshing the curriculum to reinforce what they're learning," she explained. "This year the primary two class built a tent in their classroom to focus on the story of Abraham and his journey. They dug for artefacts in sand and now they're producing a book with their own narration."

She admires the new head as "interested and interesting, especially in co-operative learning with the older ones helping the younger ones".

Mrs Thomson, meanwhile, wants to "bring people together. People don't like change and I have no intention of changing the things that make the school unique. But I also know I can improve the school because fresh eyes allow that.

"I could go quicker but that's not how you take people with you."

    Last updated: 3:35pm, June 17 2010