JFS in the spotlight
The Supreme Court ruling has been a testing time for Europe’s largest Jewish secondary school. We talk to JFS staff and pupils.
Head teacher Jonathan Miller says “I think the school is the hidden jewel of the community”
The pupils and staff of JFS have found themselves in the spotlight this year. After the Supreme Court ruled the school must not enquire about the halachic status of pupils, the face of Jewish education was changed forever – sparking endless debate in the community.
JFS pupils discussed the court's decision too, says head Jonathan Miller, because they discuss everything.
"I am sure our students were very aware of it, but it's not the biggest issue for them. You can guarantee it will have been fiercely debated on both sides, with intelligent arguments, by our students in the lunch hall. But otherwise it has been business as usual."
Political awareness was also evident the second time the school hit the headlines. Pupil Joel Weiner became an overnight sensation in 2009 putting BNP leader Nick Griffin in his place on BBC's Question Time and took centre stage again in April during the first party leaders' televised election debate on ITV.
Ten months have passed since the court's decision and the 300-strong batch of Year 7 pupils are settling into the new term. There were more than 650 applicants for 300 places and more than 95 per cent will stay on before taking up a university place.
Apart from its admissions procedure, little has changed. Teachers and pastoral staff are pursuing the same formula that saw the school ranked "Outstanding" in every category by Ofsted and named the country's top comprehensive.
Mr Miller, who has taught at the school for 27 years, explained why he believes the school is so exceptional. "We have a relentless pursuit of excellence. But there are three things we value; the first is progress, whether it's Oxbridge or a clutch of GCSEs.
"Second, we want our pupils to go on a Jewish journey, whether they are shomer Shabbat or from a non-Orthodox background. Third, we want pupils to give back, to be the next generation of leaders."
Like all Year 7s, children can find starting at the 2,000-pupil JFS to be a daunting prospect
He added: "I think the school is the hidden jewel of the community and it is undervalued. There are preconceptions about us. Anyone can come to see the school and have those shattered."
The school's outstanding record means it has the opportunity to become a new Academy. "We have expressed interest in becoming an Academy and we have an obligation to consider it so there's a working party looking at it.
"I don't know what the answer will be, but I'm hoping there will be one by the end of the academic year."
The school's head of community liaison, Jamie Peston, says the school has transformed since moving from Camden to a 26-acre site in the leafy suburbs of Kenton in 2002. Originally in London's East End "we were always finding ourselves in the wrong place, Camden was quite a rough area and although it was a very good school, it wasn't the exceptional place it is now."
The design of the school makes it feel manageable, even with 2,000 pupils.
"We have spacious corridors, nearly twice as big as standard. There are huge windows, it feels light, people don't push past each other and it means behaviour is better. Outside pupils can sit or play in beautiful courtyards. Staff offices have large windows so you can see who is in there - teachers and pupils can't hide away from each other."
Although the school is known for its academic achievements, it also has a Special Educational Needs department, for those with difficulties ranging from autism to Down's syndrome.
"The department is right at the entrance to the school," Mr Peston points out. "We are very proud of the students here, so we don't shut them away at the back. Some go on to
GCSEs and some just learn life skills but we measure their success on what improvements they have made."
The school has invested a great deal in facilities, including recording studios and astroturf pitches. Students can take home thousands of pounds worth of HD cameras "because we trust them".
Catering is quite an operation, Shelley Poll, head of catering, explains: "We run a milky kitchen and we have a shomer from the London Beth Din; I honestly don't know how it's possible to do meat. There's hot meals, salad, bagels and even sushi." Chips are only on the menu once a week.
The most striking building is the onsite synagogue. Mr Peston explains: "In planning law now, your building must make a contribution to the surrounding architecture. When the lights are twinkling through the stained glass window of the synagogue, it really is a magical sight."
Judaism is at the heart of JFS, but Mr Peston stresses "No student is forced to daven. We hope both girls and boys study and develop a connection with Judaism. We teach them to use the text as a springboard to discuss modern life."
Some parents prefer their children to learn more traditionally about Torah so some pupils opt to do text classes instead of Jewish studies lessons. Some even do extended text study after school twice a week.
Israel is central to the school's Jewish ethos, and students are encouraged to learn the facts of both sides of the Middle East debate, says Mr Peston.
"We have been running trips to Israel since the 1960s. We were the very first Zionist school."
In Year 9, 65 students spend three months on Kibbutz Lavi in the Lower Galilee – a trip which is always oversubscribed. Others have a chance to do a two week tour of the country.
Keeping a school of JFS's size secure is paramount. Security manager Warren Singer spent many years with the CST. "Staff check the IDs of all non-uniformed people entering the school, we have CCTV, night vision and 24 hour security presence. But we are mindful that it's a school, and the last thing we do is scare people. We don't teach our kids to be paranoid. They should feel safe and happy wearing a kippah to and from school."