It is no wonder that Jonathan Goldstein, chairman of the community’s new strategic Jewish education body, believes “we are in a golden age”.
Jewish schools were already attracting around two thirds of UK Jewish children before three new Jewish free schools were approved by the Department for Education last month.
Pupil numbers are “extraordinary”, said Mr Goldstein, the first head of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS). “It is an amazing achievement for the community over the course of the last 30 years. However, with that comes challenges.” For one thing, the supply of qualified Jewish-studies and modern-Hebrew teachers has not kept pace with school expansion. “We don’t have the number of teachers coming through that we need,” he said.
One problem was the long-entrenched belief that “because someone is knowledgeable, they can teach. That is not right. Because someone can kick a football, that doesn’t make them a football player. There is a specific skill in being a professional teacher.”
Apart from helping to set up training schemes for teachers, the new agency has also taken over supervision of the Jewish Curriculum Partnership (JCP), an ambitious plan for a national Jewish studies curriculum inaugurated five years ago.
Primary schools are already benefiting from new interactive resources in Ivrit launched last year. “We all know the secondary schools are clamouring for a modern Ivrit programme and one of our first projects with the JCP will be providing one for years seven-to-nine.
“What we are looking to do, and what we will be judged by over the course of a five-year track record, is: are we able to help schools improve the quality of teaching and the curriculum to the benefit of our children?”
PaJeS grew out of an ad hoc group convened five years ago by the Jewish Leadership Council to implement a report on Jewish schools. The plan is that it will run for a year or so as a division of the JLC, jointly funded by the UJIA, before becoming a stand-alone body.
Mr Goldstein, who is deputy chief executive of Gerald Ronson’s Heron International, is himself a product of the Jewish day school system, having attended Ilford Jewish Primary. Until recently, he was chairman of governors of Kerem School in Hampstead Garden Suburb and he chairs one of the community’s major education projects, the redevelopment of the Redbridge campus, which will see IJPS rebuilt alongside King Solomon High School.
Just as the need has been recognised for central, cross-communal bodies in other areas of Jewish life, the same goes for education, “the strongest growth sector in the Jewish community”.
PaJeS will operate on an annual budget of around £250,000 (excluding the cost of the JCP) and its first executive director is Alastair Falk, formerly UJIA director of educational leadership and King Solomon head.
It has taken charge of the find-a-Jewish-school website for parents and it is collecting data on siblings of current pupils to help assess future demand.
The new free school option has meant that it has never been easier for groups of parents to set up their own school. But some Jewish educators believe there could already be a glut of Jewish schools.
While PaJeS will not venture an opinion on whether there are too many schools, Mr Goldstein counsels “circumspection. One has to have a level of concern in certain pockets of north-west London about the desire for each individual community to have a school attached to it, sometimes two.
“In the next three-to-four years — or six-to-eight — you can see the demand for those one-form entry schools. But if one is looking to maximise the quality and efficiency of our organisations, one could say that, rather than having three schools within two miles of each other, would it not be more sensible to turn two or three of those into one two-form or three-form entry primary school?”
It also might be better to add a class to an existing school, rather than to open a new school from scratch.