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What inspectors hope to find inside a good Jewish school

    Dancing with delight: children at Sinai Primary in London, whose Jewish education is officially rated good
    Dancing with delight: children at Sinai Primary in London, whose Jewish education is officially rated good

    The Jewish school inspection service, Pikuach, is to introduce a new policy next term which will pay more attention to children's experience of Judaism rather than simply their skills and knowledge.

    Inspectors from the Board of Deputies-run service will be tasked with looking more closely at informal Jewish educational activities and at how the school puts its particular Jewish ethos into practice.

    Jeffrey Leader, director of Pikuach, said that while it would continue to evaluate Jewish knowledge and the quality of teaching, it would "focus more on pupils, not only in terms of what they know and understand but what impact it is making on them. That's more challenging."

    Trips to Israel or Poland, charity work, prayer assemblies, all play their part in transmitting Judaism. "Children may go to sing in an old age home," he said, "but the question is are they tying it to Jewish values?"

    Until now, Pikuach's inspection framework has been modelled on the national service, Ofsted. But that "doesn't get the essence of what a Jewish school should be teaching and kids learning," Mr Leader added.

    Trips to Israel or Poland all play their part

    Instead Pikuach found that the Catholic and Church of England inspection services also tried to assess how far their religious values infused the life of the school.

    "If children are doing tefilah [prayer], how meaningful is that to the children who participated in it?" Mr Leader asked. "We sometimes see assemblies where the children's eyes are glazed over."

    At a minchah service at a school he once inspected, two-thirds of the children looked "tuned out," he said. "I asked some of them afterwards if they enjoyed it. They were sheepish at first but they hadn't.

    "I asked them if it was compulsory - it was. I said 'if it were voluntary, would they come'. They replied 'no'. So I asked what would make them come.

    One of them said, 'If I understood the meaning of what I was saying.' That's the key point."

    It is not necessary for children to be able to give a word-for-word translation of a prayer but to grasp the general message it is trying to impart, Mr Leader argued. "There have been one or two schools who do this superbly - that's the kind of thing we want to see more of," he said. At one school, for example, he witnessed prayers at assembly interspersed with explanations.

    Unlike Ofsted, there are no national standards for Pikuach to work by. Instead, a school is evaluated according to the objectives of its own Jewish education policy as set out in its prospectus.

    But there is one area of improvement he is keen to see across the school landscape: Hebrew reading. There are still children leaving the school system without being able to read properly.

    If they cannot follow a synagogue service, that is "one reason they are turned off," he said.

    He reported that "we've seen schools provide Hebrew reading practice for children at home. The parents are asked to sign that their children have done it but the problem is that the parents can't read themselves."

    But even parents who cannot read well expect their children to come out of a Jewish school being able to do so.

    Mr Leader recalled recently hearing of parents who "cried with joy" when their child led Grace after Meals at a cousin's barmitzvah.

    Hebrew reading in the early years can often be reasonably good, but it declines by the age of 11 and further drops at Jewish secondary school.

    Some secondary schools do not feel it is their place to teach reading as such and it can be hard to motivate older children to get down to practice.

    Mr Leader believes that an awards scheme now in the pipeline from the Office of the Chief Rabbi could help encourage children to develop their reading and other skills before baror batmitzvah. (Details of the scheme are due to be unveiled before the new Jewish year.)

    "The other answer is development of technology where children who struggle with reading are given tailormade programmes to work at home," he said.

    He has been prepared to challenge schools which teach children to write Hebrew script when they still cannot read the letters adequately in block.

    "I sometimes question why a number of schools insist on learning to write Hebrew script at the expense of other subjects including Hebrew reading," he added, arguing that writing in script may be more useful in Ivrit lessons.

    In future, Pikuach will no longer inspect Ivrit in schools- unless it is specifically requested to do so. Many schools already have Ivrit inspected as a modern foreign language by Ofsted.

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