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Spiritual development is more important than knowledge for Jewish education

The head of the Jewish inspection service Pikuach explains what it is looking for in a Jewish school

    Snow did not stop Purim celebrations at JFS
    Snow did not stop Purim celebrations at JFS

    The number of children in Jewish schools in Britain has never been higher but one question has yet to find a definitive answer: how successful are they?

    You can tabulate their academic performance through Sats,  GCSEs, or A-levels, although the quality of a school is not simply reducible to exam grades.

    But beyond GCSE results in religious studies, there is no equivalent measure for Jewish learning within the Jewish school system.

    When Jonathan Goldstein became chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council last year, he promised a consultation about the possibility of  “benchmarking” the levels of Jewish knowledge achieved by children.

    But “benchmarking” is an idea  which Jeffrey Leader, chief inspector of Pikuach, the Board of Deputies-administered Jewish inspection service, remains wary.

    How can you find common ground between a strictly Orthodox primary which teaches Talmud and a school where more than half the pupils are not Jewish?

    “If you take a mainstream school to the right, and a school well to the left, there is no way they are going to subscribe to the same standards of subject knowledge,” Mr Leader says. “It would make our job a lot easier but I cannot see how you could have national standards for a school.”

    Besides, he argues, knowledge in itself should not be the primary objective for a Jewish school. “I maintain I can teach my parrot the blessing for bread,” he says. “What kids do with that knowledge is the most important thing, as far as Jewish schools are concerned. I have often said a knowledgeable Jew is not necessarily a committed one.

    “For me, Jewish education is all about capturing the hearts of children — strengthening their identity and making them proud of their heritage.”
    For a couple of years, a Pikuach working party has been looking at how to evaluate the spiritual development of children. “You have to reach them from the inside,” he says. “It’s very difficult to measure.”

    Pikuach judges schools not by some external national yardstick but according to the individual aims of each school as set out in its educationpolicy. If a prospectus claims children leave with a passion for lifelong Jewish learning, inspectors will want to know exactly how they can determine that.

    Mr Leader, a former Jewish school head himself, has been taking part in one long-term study to try to gauge the impact of Jewish schooling on children’s Jewish identity from their entry into secondary school until after university. It is run by the UJIA and sponsored by the Pears Foundation.

    He has been conducting interviews with 18 year-olds in their final school year and his personal impressions so far are that “what’s coming up is a strong sense of Jewish identity. 

    “When they were asked what it means to them to be Jewish, it means a sense of community, a sense of heritage and a certain pride, whether they are religious or not.”

    Ultimately, it is more important a Jewish child remains involved in Jewish life than the number of facts they know.

    Although sceptical of national benchmarks for Jewish studies, one possibility he envisages could be to take a cue from the bnei-mitzvah awards scheme currently being planned by the Chief Rabbi, which will have gold, silver and bronze medals (as with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards). So there could be particular subjects such as Bible knowledge or Jewish history where students at different schools could aim to reach a level suitable to them.

    But one area of knowledge is critical above all and Pikuach has been vocal in calling for improvement in it: Hebrew reading. Inspectors still come across children who have had 11 years of Jewish schooling but still cannot accurately decode the Hebrew letters. Without Hebrew, they are denied access to prayers, to Judaism’s original texts.

    Despite the challenges of inspecting Jewish schools, he rejects any suggestion that Pikuach can be too easy on them. “In the past, I admit in some cases I think Pikuach has been a soft touch,” he says — when parents have not recognised the inspectors’ portrait of the school their children attended. 

    In recent years, however, he believes its judgments have stood up. Of the 11 Jewish schools inspected by Pikuach in 2016 and 2017, for example, four were graded outstanding, four good and three as requiring improvement. 

    But Mr Leader does acknowledge that in more than 20 years, Pikuach has “never failed a school. We don’t want to destroy schools. No one has received an ‘inadequate’ [the lowest inspection grade]. In one or two cases in the past, we could have easily given one. We decided not to do that in order to give the school a chance to improve.”

    * Pikuach’s most recent published inspection was for the Leeds Jewish Free School (where just over half the students are Jewish) which was rated good. Inspectors noted it offered additional classes in Talmud and biblical Hebrew for abler students, ran “fun” activities such as lunch ‘n’ learn sessions and strove to demonstrate core Jewish values such as chesed, kindness, to all pupils regardless of their faith.

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