School earns ministerial seal
Andrew Stunell gets a lesson from Sam Benjamin
The headteacher of the high achieving North Cheshire Jewish Primary has said that its multi-faith projects demolish the argument that faith schools provide only a narrow grounding and lead to societal division.
North Cheshire normally attracts attention for academic excellence. In league tables published last month, it was the best Greater Manchester school and rated tenth best in England. In SATs, pupils scored an average of 32 out of a possible 33 points in English and maths, results normally associated with children three years older.
And on Monday it was hailed as a beacon of inter-community relations by Communities Minister Andrew Stunell, who visited to explore how its multi-faith work fits with the government's developing model for community cohesion.
Year Six pupil Sam Benjamin showed the minister their "Do you dare to be Different?" project, demonstrating how British culture and identity have changed over the past 60 years. It is one of a number of activities North Cheshire head Jackie Savage says has been woven into the curriculum to inspire confidence in pupils' Jewish identity and also to encourage positive discussion about integration into British society.
The south Manchester school has twinned with the non-Jewish Lum Head Primary, less than a mile away in Gatley. At one event, pupils' self-portraits of half their faces were joined together to focus on ethnic differences.
"We are one of a few Jewish schools involved in cohesion work," Mrs Savage said. "Some of the projects involve the children breaking down barriers and some of their fears of other communities. I think at North Cheshire we've got the balance right. Children learn to be proud, observant members of their own community and how to respect and honour the differences and communities of others.
"We work very closely with a cluster network of local authority schools, their headteachers and other teachers sharing best practice. Last year we started getting the schools' student councils to work together."
Sam Benjamin said he was proud to have been chosen to meet the minister. "It was unexpected so I didn't have time to get nervous. We learned that in the 50s, many immigrants from the Caribbean Islands came here because they believed they could have a better life in England, but were discriminated against.
"My mum's family is from Germany and my dad's is from Russia, so I feel they've experienced something of what my family felt a few generations ago. It's helped me to become stronger in my own Jewish identity."
Eight-year-old Guy Lipshaw was another who spoke to the minister. He said that "through the projects we've done, I've learned no matter how different people are, usually they can co-operate and feel comfortable together. I think it will help me get on better with others in my future, even in college or work."
Mr Stunell told the JC that if adopted by the Muslim community, such inter-community activities would assist integration and combat Islamophobia.
"North Cheshire Jewish Primary is an outstanding school which is already doing many of the things we would want and see as being a model. It is reaching out and sharing its culture with other schools in Stockport. What we want to see is integration in the UK, which doesn't mean just stirring everything up.
"The Muslim community has got a much shorter history [in the UK] and what I would hope is that they could learn from your experience without having to go through the time-warp that has faced the Jewish community."
Mrs Savage - who in her previous post turned around a failing non-Jewish Manchester primary - said North Cheshire's outstanding performance was largely attributable to being a faith school.
"There is an underlying sense of a communal sharing of beliefs and values, and also expectations of each other. Pupils come from homes where aspiration is high and talk not only about what high school they want to go to but also about what university. Parent and governor support is also truly exceptional. We have an amazing group who bring their personal and professional skills to the school."
Parent-governor Caroline Fraser, a qualified engineer and magistrate, says the community spirit should not stop at parents. She is planning an open day for pupils' grandparents.