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What is the point of Jewish schools?

We need a national Jewish studies curriculum for Jewish secondary schools, argue the founders of Etgar

    A number of community leaders have, over the past year in the pages of this newspaper, posed the question: what, exactly, are Jewish schools for?  What do pupils and their parents expect from a Jewish school? What should the community expect?

    According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the number of Jewish children attending Jewish schools is around 31,000. Excluding the Charedi community, 43 per cent of the relevant age group now go to a Jewish school. 

    In 2011, the Pears Foundation began a study following the lives and choices of young Jewish families across the UK. 

    The study indicates that for many parents, the choice of a mainstream Jewish school is based on the promise of a free school which attracts a cohort of children drawn from similar socio-economic backgrounds and delivers excellent academic results in non-Jewish subjects.

    However, many parents also choose a Jewish school to receive an education in Jewish subjects as well. What Jewish knowledge or skills do we want our children to have learned after years of being in a mainstream Jewish school? And how do we assess this learning?

    The problems of building a Jewish studies curriculum — particularly in reaching a consensus on what should be studied, teacher training and parental support — are well documented. 

    The objectives of Jewish education at primary level seem easy to identify. Most would agree on targets such as ensuring children can read Hebrew and understand some basic words in the language; are familiar with the calendar and rhythm of the Jewish year; can recount stories from the Bible; have a knowledge of Jewish ethical values; can participate in communal prayer, and are versed in other elements of Jewish general knowledge. 

    Across the community there seems to be a consensus about the elements of foundational Jewish knowledge, and there are a number of programmes at primary level covering these areas and even testing children’s knowledge within them. 

    However, beyond primary school there seems to be no real attempt to set out detailed objectives of Jewish education at secondary level.

    Testing in all UK schools has come under scrutiny and enormous debate. But even the most hardened critics agree some standardised tests are necessary at certain points.  Testing is critical in ensuring pupils have reached learning objectives. But, without clear expectations of Jewish studies at secondary level, mainstream Jewish schools offer no standardised Jewish studies curricula, nor any standardised Jewish studies tests — with the exception of GCSE religious studies.

    By the time they are 16, a significant percentage of Jewish teenagers will have sat in Jewish studies lessons for at least two hours every week of their school life. At a minimum they will have spent over a thousand hours in Jewish studies lessons.  What Jewish knowledge does this pupil have?  What knowledge of Hebrew?  Or of Jewish history, Jewish texts, Israel, Jewish philosophy, or Jewish ritual?  

    The community has poured tens of millions of pounds into Jewish schools. This investment includes a Jewish schools inspection service, Pikuach, which inspects schools’ Jewish studies teaching against standards they each set themselves, rather than against any commonly agreed standards.  

    By monitoring every school against its own criteria, it is perhaps unsurprising that Pikuach has only ever awarded secondary schools a “good” or “outstanding” assessment. 

    The huge sums invested have formed a central plank of the community’s strategy to guarantee its future through “Jewish continuity”. As a first step to maximising our returns on that investment, our schools should be offering clear common Jewish studies curricula that cover key areas of Jewish education. 

    Our schools should be expected to confirm their adherence to the Jewish studies curricula and publish pupils’ results in standardised Jewish studies tests, just like schools are required to report on their results in maths, sciences and English. 

    We need to set standards for our Jewish education. Otherwise what, indeed, are Jewish schools for?

    Jo Rosenfelder and Adam Taub are founders of Etgar, the inter-school Jewish general knowledge programme