Diane Samuels: what I learnt when I went back to school

In the wake of the JFS ruling, the playwright returned to her home city to celebrate an inclusive approach to education

July 30, 2009

It is early July 2009 and I am sitting in the staff room of King David Primary School on Beauclair Drive in Liverpool. The sound of children singing God Save the Queen rings from the assembly hall up the corridor. Then silence falls.

I look out to the playground which has not changed since I was a pupil here in the 1960s. I remember games of marbles, juggling balls and “Israeli skipping” with a large loop of elastic.

As an alumna who has made her way in the world as a writer, I have been invited to be guest of honour at the annual prize-giving. My thoughts turn to my speech, which acknowledges the education I received here and considers how learning is a life-long activity. I also reflect on my career as a writer and teacher and how this grew from my origins in Liverpool’s familial community.

In the assembly hall, the rehearsal for the afternoon continues and the piano strikes up again. This time the children sing the Hatikvah. My generation also sang in this same order the songs of allegiance to Britain and Israel. I learned to write, read and speak both English and Hebrew in this school, studied the Jewish festivals, the stories and history behind them. Some things never seem to change. And yet one thing has changed — most of the children singing in that hall today are not Jewish.

In Britain there are 15 Jewish secondary schools (plus various Lubavitch schools). Of these, nine are Orthodox. When it comes to primary schools, there are 29 in total, of which 16 are Orthodox. The vast majority of the schools have entrance policies that require students to be Jewish according to Halachah, or at least practising. For many of them, the emphasis is on retaining an exclusively Jewish intake. Since its establishment in 1964, the King David Primary has prioritised Jewish students while opening its doors to all children.

In the 1960s there were a couple of non-Jews in my class, but probably about 90 per cent of the school was made up of Jewish children. Now 25 per cent are Jewish. This open approach may be born of necessity in a dwindling community, now only 2,000 strong (there were around 7000 Jews in Liverpool when I was a child), but, in contrast to many other Jewish schools in the country, it is inclusive. And in this resides a particular kind of vitality.

I am so delighted to be in the hallowed staff room that I text some old school friends to whom I am still close. David Dansky has a pivotal role in the country’s biggest cyclist training organisation, Rachel Karp is a judge in London and Nicky Lachs a psychotherapist in Jerusalem. They all share a passion for their work and a commitment to contributing to the wider community. This is no coincidence. The King David encouraged these communal and human values that go way beyond the Jewish world.

The bell rings and the children, still wearing the same navy blue uniform as in my time, bound into the playground. Rachel’s text in reply says this was “a nurturing place for us”. And this continues. The respect and care taken by the current head teacher, Rachel Rick, is palpable. She is a practising Catholic who has just extended the teaching of modern Hebrew to non-Jewish students. In my day we Jewish kids were mightily envious of the extra games lessons the non-Jewish pupils had while we got to grips with our kufs, kafs and vowels. Mrs Rick introduces me to the boy, one of the older Jewish pupils, who is teaching her the language. Learning goes both ways, it seems.

Hebrew has general modern language status here now. Maybe Liverpool culture is to thank for this a bit. Who isn’t from an immigrant background of some sort in this city?

Later in the afternoon, with all the school, parents, governors, and staff assembled in the hall before the stage, I think about the joys of having left this tight-knit world. Liverpool always feels like a warm nest when I return, but birds need to spread their wings and wider horizons beckon.

Still, new shoots sprout here, even if there are more Liverpool Jews now living the larger life in London. In her speech, Lauren Lesin-Davis, the chair of governors, announces that at five o’clock this afternoon, the final documents for a new development in the grounds of the neighbouring King David High School will be signed. The old buildings of both schools, and the nearby community centre, are to be demolished and replaced by a state-of-the-art complex to create one of the largest Jewish campuses in Europe, available to many communities.

As I board the train at Lime Street — after a brief visit to the newly opened Liverpool One development in the town centre where the Pillar of Friendship sculpture made by blacksmiths from all over the world combines work by Israeli and Palestinian craftsmen — I realise that I have witnessed an infusion of Jewish spirit into the mainstream that is the opposite of loss. It can so easily be left unappreciated, this impact that Jewish religion and culture continues to have in British society. I quietly applaud a school that approaches Jewish education not according to the identity of its students, but solely on the subjects, ethics and spirit that it offers to those students. This inclusive model means that much of real value survives in Liverpool of Jewish life.

Diane Samuels’s plays include Kindertransport. She is writer in residence at Grafton Primary School in north London. Contact dianesamuels@mac.com

Last updated: 12:55pm, July 30 2009