I didn't go to a Jewish school. Neither did my siblings. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn't really done in our circles and, even if it had been, JFS was probably the only realistic option. But my parents didn't even contemplate it. They felt that school was for learning secular subjects and being part of British society. Jewish education should be taken seriously, but at shul, at home, or in a youth movement.
Fast forward a generation, and there isn’t a single child in my family who hasn’t been educated in a Jewish school. And not just at one level, but both: primary and secondary. There are great Jewish schools in our neighbourhood, with nice kids from nice families, that achieve excellent results and don’t cost very much. What’s not to like?
My story is far from unique. And it is one small example of the utterly dramatic change in the educational experiences of young British Jews that has occurred in a very short space of time.
The latest statistics are mind-boggling. In the mid-1970s, there were 12,700 British Jewish children studying in Jewish schools; by the mid-2010s, there were 30,900. In just 40 years, we went from one-fifth of all Jewish children in Jewish schools, to two-thirds.
The story about the number of schools themselves is no less extraordinary. Just 20 years ago, there were 62 Jewish schools, primary and secondary, across the UK. Today, there are 139. More Jewish schools have been built here over the past two decades than even existed 20 years ago.
Much of that growth has happened in the Charedi sector. The number of children in Charedi schools has increased by 134 per cent over the past 20 years, and 66 new Charedi schools have been opened to accommodate them.
But the growth has not only happened there. There has also been a 45 per cent increase in the number of Jewish children in mainstream Jewish schools since the mid-1990s, and 11 new schools have been opened. In London, the increase over the same period is even more pronounced. It stands at more than 70 per cent: the equivalent of an additional 4,750 children.
Why has all this happened? In the Charedi sector, it’s almost all about demographic growth. However, in the mainstream sector, the reasons are more complex.
To some extent, it is because parents want to provide their children with a strong grounding in Jewish life, and have turned to Jewish schools to support that. But, other more prosaic factors are also involved: academic quality, affordability, and simple geographical convenience.
Social momentum plays a part, too — as more parents choose to send their children to Jewish schools, it becomes a more socially acceptable thing for others to do, and, in turn, a more socially difficult thing for them not to do. Increasingly, it has become the parents who opt to send their children to non-Jewish schools who feel like the anomalies.
Push factors away from general schools are involved too: concerns about being one of an increasingly small number of Jewish children among the student body; anxieties about one’s child having few Jewish friends; fears about a lack of cultural sensitivity in those schools, or even antisemitism; and apprehension about – or rejection of – multiculturalism.
Government policy has also played a role. The shift from selective grammar schools to non-selective comprehensive schools between the 1960s and 1980s drove a growing number of Jews to opt initially for private schools, not least because that period also coincided with Jews becoming more upwardly mobile and economically secure than previously.
The significant support then shown for Jewish schools by the Major government, and the new emphasis on faith schools by Tony Blair, pushed more parents towards state Jewish schools, partly because they were selective again (albeit on the basis of Jewishness), and, importantly, because they were free.
In truth, though, the full, up-to-date story still needs to be written. How it happened, why it happened, exactly where and when it happened. But that story needs to be told in qualitative terms as well as quantitative ones to address the really important question: to what extent has the fact that it has happened made young British Jews more actively committed to the Jewish people, and more actively dedicated to creating a better, more caring and just world for all?
Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research