Once it might have been surprising to find a church-going Anglican in charge of a Jewish school. But not any more; four of the six central Orthodox or cross-communal secondary schools in London have a non-Jewish head.
Since he arrived at Immanuel College in September, Gary Griffin has been busy familiarising himself with the Jewish life of his new educational home, be it popping into the “beit” — that’s the beit midrash, the hub of Jewish studies — or plaiting challah for a Shabbat UK bake.
“I took it home and I stuck to the instructions, but in hindsight I should have left it in the oven for another 10 minutes. It was nice and crusty on top but doughy in the middle,” he recalls.
Not that the 58-year-old is a stranger to Jews. When he started at City of London Boys, one of the country’s leading private schools, where he spent most of his working life, “35 per cent of the boys were Jewish”. When he left nearly three years ago, the proportion had dropped though was still high at “20 to 25 per cent”.
His CV also includes a spell as a governor at Naima Jewish Preparatory School in Maida Vale, a regular supplier of pupils to Immanuel. Its chairman of governors at the time, Edward Misrahi, is now co-chairman of Immanuel.
The college, where fees are now £17,175 a year, is currently riding on a high, with its roll of 690 pupils the largest since opening in 1990. That includes 130 at the preparatory school which has welcomed its first year six class this term. The senior school has 40 more students than last year and the year-seven entry is its highest at 89.
Its growth is all the more notable in face of stiffer competition with two new state-aided Jewish secondaries having opened in north-west London over the past decade.
“I’m very lucky to be coming in on the wave of superb GCSE results, which were the best in the history of the college,” Mr Griffin says. “There is a great demand to get in and we have waiting lists at most age groups, which for me is very encouraging.”
He says, “If we can raise standards, that’s certainly what I’ll be aiming to do.” He has advertised the new post of deputy head (academic) to help oversee the formal educational curriculum. But he stresses, “I would not want to give the impression, ever, that Immanuel is going to become an academic hothouse at the expense of everything else. I’m very much into a holistic view of education.”
Interviews for applicants also take into account what they can contribute to the artistic, sporting or Jewish life of the school. He is proud of its art, music and drama, enthusing about the “marvellous” production of My Fair Lady he saw last summer. He was told a visiting inspector, watching some of the drama students, had asked a teacher, “Are you sure this is not a performing arts school?”
A south Londoner, he takes a 70-minute train commute every day from Wimbledon. He grew up on the Fulham Road, equidistant between Fulham and Chelsea football clubs, since boyhood offering his allegiance to the latter.
He “loved school” at Burlington Danes in the White City, which was a non-denominational boys’ grammar when he started but mid-way through his time changed into a mixed, Church of England comprehensive.
An inspirational history teacher convinced him to follow a similar vocational path. After a first in economic and social history at Exeter University, he qualified at London’s Institute of Education before joining City at the callow age of 22. He worked his way up to second master (deputy head) and served as acting head in his final year.
When a new head came in, he felt “it was time to move on. I thought, I’ve been here a long time, probably change would be good for me.”
It was while working as a freelance educational consultant that he was called in 18 months ago by Charles Dormer, then head of Immanuel, to do a review of the school. The week he spent there gave him “a feeling for the place. I was so impressed with the whole community atmosphere. I ate in the dining room with pupils and started informal chats. They were confident, enthusiastic, they would talk to me about anything and everything. They told me how much they loved the place.”
Generally “positive” in his report, he recommended a few tweaks though nothing major. When the possibility of the headship came up, “I thought I’d like to be part of a school again, I knew it was a school I’d feel comfortable in.”
He seems at ease in his study with its rural view, but some of its green fields will have to be sacrificed to new classrooms over the coming year or two, as the school needs physically to expand in order to cope with its rising numbers.
Apart from a new dining room recently opened by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, a sixth form art studio will be completed soon and a sixth form centre is due to be built during 2018: a new library and meeting rooms are in the pipeline, too. And as well as new buildings, the increased pupil roll also necessitates the recruitment of additional staff, particularly to maintain pupil/teacher ratios; in the sixth form, he says, “the average set size is seven to eight”.
He is also introducing an “enrichment programme” to develop the most able students beyond their exam syllabus, with courses for example on law or philosophy. A Model United Nations group is in the offing, which will be open to other schools. Other options further down the line may include subjects such as Mandarin in the sixth form. “We want to stretch students more,” he says.
Another area he is looking to develop is “outreach and partnership. Although Immanuel has always had relations with other schools and the state sector, it is my intention to expand those much more — not only in inviting schools to take part in Immanuel events but students going out to other schools and other organisations, providing assistance where it is wanted. I don’t want Immanuel to be inward-looking. To begin with, it will be with the Jewish community but I see it going beyond that. I think we have a moral obligation to work with other schools and the wider community.”
He continues to contribute his own educational experience to the Pegasus Academy Trust, a primary school academy chain in a “relatively deprived” area of south London, of which he is a non-executive director.
As for safeguarding Immanuel’s religious ethos, he can rely on its principal, Rabbi Eliezer Zobin, and Danny Baigel, a former head boy of the college, newly promoted to assistant head for Jewish life and learning.
One change is that GCSE religious studies will return to teaching Judaism only. Last year the new RS curriculum required a second religion (Islam at Immanuel). But from next year, the school will opt for a new IGCSE syllabus, which permits focus on a single faith.
“Students will be able to go back to studying Judaism in much greater depth,” he says. “It won’t mean they won’t study other religions, they won’t be studying them as part of GCSE.”