Optimism over Conservative faith school plan
Leo Noé: faith in Michael Gove
The head of the Jewish Leadership Council's schools task force is hopeful that planned education reforms could help to relieve the pressure on places at Jewish schools.
One of the key pledges in the Conservative election manifesto was to make it easier for parents to open new schools with state funding.
This cannot come a moment too soon for parents in parts of Hertfordshire and north-west London, where there appears to be a growing shortage of Jewish primary school places.
JLC member Leo Noé, who has met new Schools Secretary Michael Gove, said: "I believe he is a dedicated and honest man who has sincerely held views. From our point of view specifically - and from an education point of view in the UK generally - I hope he will be helpful."
Mr Noé chairs the Schools Strategic Implementation Group (SSIG), an ad hoc body which is half-way through its three-year remit to implement the JLC's 2008 report on Jewish schools.
The JLC has recently set up a website to help Jewish parents find places for their children at Jewish schools and to keep track of supply and demand.
Mr Noé reckons "we are 60 places short" in the north-west London region, the equivalent of two one-form entry schools. "That's what you need." But such is the attraction of Jewish schools that he believes that if four schools were opened in the right areas, "I am convinced that four would be full." It was, nevertheless, not for the SSIG to open new schools, he said. It was the responsibility of local activists. "To my mind, it's very simple. You want to start a school. You go to your shul and you say to your shul, I need a room for the next year. That gives me another year to find a school. And once you have started it, believe me, you'll get your second class and you're fine."
The property investor, who is recognised for his support of special educational needs nationally, said the JLC was determined not to let its schools report gather dust. "Without being arrogant, I think we have done a pretty good job in the last year and a half," Mr Noé said.
In contrast to the situation in primaries, the 2008 report warned that there could be more places than Jewish pupils at mainstream Jewish secondary schools unless there was an increased Jewish take-up. (Already, the forecast that some schools might have to start taking non-Jewish pupils has come true at King Solomon in Redbridge).
As a result, the SSIG is encouraging better marketing of Jewish schools.
Alastair Falk, the UJIA's director of educational leadership who is working with the SSIG, said: "One of the exercises we did was a mystery shopper, where somebody called all the Jewish schools and the non-Jewish schools in their area just to try to see what kind of message you get when you call up as a parent.
"As a result we hosted a day for front-line office staff in Jewish schools, in order to help them deal with those kind of issues."
SSIG has overseen progress in other areas, including the teaching of Ivrit and the training of Jewish studies teachers. "I think we are in a better place for the development of Ivrit than we have been for a very long time," Mr Falk said.
JLC chief executive Jeremy Newmark said that the Board of Deputies' role in lobbying for Jewish schools has been strengthened. And Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag of Manchester has been asked to act as a liaison between the Jewish educational system and the churches.
The SSIG had also been successful in securing the support of both the religious right and left within the Jewish community, Mr Newmark noted. "I was stunned, at a schools marketing seminar, to see people from the cross-communal JCoSS and the Orthodox Hasmonean in the same working group. That is not something the wider community knows."
Jewish education: progress report
In line with the requirement that all state-aided primaries must teach a foreign language from September, the JLC wants all Jewish primaries to consider making that language Hebrew (some preferred French). New efforts are going into training Ivrit teachers, while government funding has been secured to train five specialists in the language for Jewish primary schools.
The JLC report recommended that all Jewish studies teachers should have a professional qualification. Thirteen such teachers, some from the strictly Orthodox community, are enrolled on a new degree scheme introduced at London’s Greenwich University. Additionally, 20 teachers are taking a special MA for Jewish studies teachers at Birkbeck College, including five from Manchester.
Overall, state-aided Jewish schools need to raise £10 million a year to fund Jewish studies but often contributions from parents fall short. Bill Benjamin, co-chairman of Masorti and managing director of a private equity company, is still investigating on behalf of the SSIG the possibility of an endowment fund to help schools.
Special education needs
The results of a survey on special educational needs at Jewish schools is being looked at by a sub-group chaired by Norwood deputy chairman David Ereira. It will make recommendations in due course.
The JLC report recommended a centre for residential programmes for schools. Skeet House, in Orpington Kent, which has long been used by Jewish youth groups, has been made more “school-friendly” and its clients now range from the strictly Orthodox Pardes House to the pluralist Clore Tikva.
A report was recently published setting out the options for Jewish schooling in Redbridge after consultation with local community. The SSIG went further than its remit and raised £160,000 seed funding to help with plans to relocate Ilford Jewish Primary School to the campus of King Solomon High School.