In 2011, the deputy head of Clore Shalom Primary, Marc Shoffren, left after a decade in the Jewish school system to become director of studies at the junior section of one of the country’s top independent institutions, North London Collegiate.
But in less than two years, he was back in the communal fold, having been appointed head of the new Alma Primary free school in North Finchley.
“It was one of those opportunities that was hard to resist,” he said as Alma welcomed its first students this week. “This is going to be an exciting place Jewishly and educationally.”
The cross-communal school has opened with a full reception complement of 30 and Mr Shoffren reported that “all the places were filled almost within two weeks of us offering them in April”.
Although a couple of families changed their mind over the summer, the vacancies were quickly filled. “A boy who has just come from Israel took the last place,” he added.
“We have attracted pupils from all of the mainstream movements, Orthodox, Liberal, Reform and Masorti, as well as those who are members of none. We are a microcosm of the community.”
New North London Masorti Synagogue member Sara Okrent — whose four-year-old son Gilad is one of Alma’s first recruits — said she and her Israeli husband Leor were “particularly excited at the high level of commitment to Hebrew and Jewish studies” and the cross-communal ethos.“The school has an amazing team and they convinced us that it would be a success.”
An Ivrit teacher is already on the staff alongside a full-time reception teacher and two learning assistants.
Mr Shoffren said Jewish studies would offer “the opportunity to understand the different ways of being Jewish”, as well as “using stories as a launchpad for children to ask searching questions about the implications of their actions. It comes from an approach called Philosophy for Children, which aims at giving children deep-thinking skills. We are bringing that approach into the Jewish environment.” A “bank of iPads” would enhance learning in every subject, including Jewish education.
For the next two years Alma will be housed in the former premises of the Sacks Morasha Primary School.
“We have done a lot of renovation on the site and made the grounds a lot more pleasant for children to play in,” Mr Shoffren said.
School meals will be catered by the Beit Hamadras kosher Indian restaurant in Hendon, but families with less spicy palates can rest assured. “There’s no chicken korma for five-year-olds,” said the Alma head. “They had pasta with bolognese sauce on the first day.”