I have some good news for Michael Gove. The Education Secretary has been calling for state secondary schools to provide a standard of education worthy of Winchester or Eton despite the cuts his government has imposed, which means they have to do so so on around £20,000 less per child than the top public schools.
Impossible? Well, my daughter Lucy started at (according to Ofsted,) one of north London’s best comprehensives in September and I have been hugely impressed so far. I think Lucy has enjoyed the experience too, although it’s hard to know as she confines herself to one-word descriptions.
“How was school today, Lucy?” “Fine”. “What lessons did you have?” “Er, maths, I think”. “How was it?” “Boring.” At which point, the window for conversation closes and she retreats with her phone for the rest of the evening.
Because this is a mainstream comprehensive, parents of Jewish children might worry that the kids are being deprived of education about Judaism. Again, I have been very encouraged.
A few weeks ago I asked Lucy what she had been learning in RE. Her face lit up – not at the question, but because her friend had sent her something very amusing on a social networking site. After I had shone an interrogation light on her and threatened Chinese burns, she eventually admitted that she had been learning “something Jewish”.
I checked the school’s website and it turned out that she was learning about the rituals and traditions of the synagogue and preparing a mini-project for homework. In year eight she will learn about bar- and batmitzvah ceremonies and in year nine about the Exodus, Jewish attitudes to Israel and the Holocaust. And the great thing is that her non-Jewish friends (whose names I will eventually get to know, I hope) will also be following this syllabus.
Her younger brother Alex has also been learning about Judaism at primary school and has visited a synagogue although this was not his favourite place of worship — at the Neasden Temple they were given a delicious vegetarian lunch including poppadoms, which has been enough to swing him towards Hinduism.
Jewish themes have also been addressed in Lucy’s other classes. In English, her homework was to write about refugees – specifically the Kindertransport. She also had homework on German Jewish refugee Judith Kerr, author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
As part of this homework, Lucy sat down to watch Alan Yentob’s documentary about Kerr’s experience. You could tell she was enthralled because almost half an hour elapsed before she started texting her friends. Fortunately, I saw this happening and managed to wrestle the phone from her, at the cost of a few minor injuries. She then resumed watching in rapt silence.
I asked her what she had thought of the tale of a young, artistic child, forced to start a new life in a foreign country. Lucy pondered for a few seconds. “Interesting. Can I have my phone back now?”