Family & Education

A new head, a new era at King Solomon High


Matthew Slater credits his Catholic upbringing with sparking his love for Jewish education. "The moral code that runs through the two is the same," he says. "I just felt wonderfully at home."

It has been almost two months since the Lancashire-born educator took the reins at King Solomon High School in Essex. And while the job carried certain caveats, not least the fact that he would be taking over after a period of unrest at the top, the headteacher is relishing his new role.

"I applied with no hesitation," the 45-year-old says. "It had my name written all over it. I feel like I've come back to a time when I was the happiest I have ever been in education."

High praise, indeed, considering Mr Slater's wide-ranging career. Early jobs in sales and social work "were not fulfilling enough" and didn't enable him "to take strong action to support the people I was working with".

So he trained as a business teacher and, in the early-1990s, jumped from a placement at a Catholic school in Kensington into a permanent role at Hasmonean Boys' School in Hendon.

‘I applied with no hesitation. It had my name written all over it’

"I remember walking in and feeling comfortable," he says. "While the prayers were in a different language, it felt like my own religious education.

"There is a real synergy between Jewish and Catholic teaching, and there are so many things in common."

His time there was "blissful" - thanks, in large part, to the guidance and mentorship of the late Dena Coleman, then-headteacher.

"She made an absolute difference to my life," he says. "She would have the broadest smile on her face knowing where I am now."

After following Dr Coleman to Bushey Meads, Hertfordshire, Mr Slater developed an appetite for leadership and climbed the ranks at various local schools, including Onslow St Audrey's in Hatfield, a school in special measures.

"I went there deliberately," he explains, "because I was preparing for a role in leadership. I wanted to have experience in as broad a range of schools as possible. Going to a place that was being so carefully scrutinised by Ofsted helped me learn how to tackle schools in challenging situations."

In the years that followed, he was deputy head at Yavneh College, in Borehamwood, principal of Drapers Academy in Romford, and head of the trust-sponsored Tabor Academy in Braintree.

Evidently, his career has run the gamut of educational institutions - a necessary backstory for someone taking on the headship of King Solomon.

After all, the school is not without its challenges. A declining Jewish population in the area means that the majority of pupils are now non-Jewish (last count found that 44 per cent of pupils came from Jewish families). And while parents, particularly in north London, fear that there are not enough places available at Jewish schools, few consider King Solomon as a viable option.

Meanwhile, the school hit the headlines last year when then-headteacher Jo Shuter was banned from teaching for life, after abusing expenses in her previous role as head of Quintin Kynaston Community Academy.

"The reality is this: the school has been on a journey, and there has been a lot of change," Mr Slater says. "I'm the fourth substantive person to be headteacher in as many years. It needs certainty and long-term security.

"My intention is to stay here for as long as I can."

His experience in turning around troubled schools - he was praised by David Cameron for making Drapers' Academy the fastest improving school in the country - suggests he is well-equipped to make real change.

"I enjoy supporting schools to make progress," he says. "I don't believe any school would say that their work is finished.

"The opportunity for me to make improvements comes through the creativity of school leadership - by influencing the curriculum, the teaching and learning and the use of technology, as well as challenging children to go above and beyond what they are capable of."

As for the Jewish deficit, tackling it is a priority. While he celebrates the school's diversity, he is determined to entice more pupils of the faith.

"Our community reflects the east London community, and the Jewish population isn't as strong as it once was," he says. "But at the same time, we know that Jewish families are savvy consumers of education. They are aware of the successes of schools and they won't hesitate to find the best school for their children.

"My role here is to make this school a compelling argument for every Jewish family. To do that, we must ensure that our academic standards are as high as possible, and that we provide all that is good about Jewish education."

He adds: "There are still a number of Jewish families in east London and Essex, and many of them send their kids to local schools. If we can encourage those children to come here instead, then great."

As a practising Christian, Mr Slater celebrates the moral ethos of faith education. Jewish schooling, he says, "is invaluable for future generations of Anglo-Jewry.

"It's important to me that when you walk into this school, you know it's a Jewish school from the outset."

At the same time, he adds, it is "wonderful" to see so many non-Jewish pupils embracing the school's religious foundations.

"In my past experience at Hasmonean and Yavneh, almost 100 per cent of students were Jewish so they already had prior knowledge. Here, we're welcoming others into this Jewish world.

"It is beautiful to see a mix of kids treating the festivals with such respect. All the children buy into the Jewishness of what we do. They take part in all the services, and everything is celebrated how one would expect in any other Jewish school."

He reveals that his favourite part is "Shabbat, as it encourages families to come together, away from the distraction of social media.

"This is a wonderful part of the culture of a Jewish school. It is really important to me. I didn't come to work in a comprehensive in Barkingside; I came to work in a Jewish comprehensive in Barkingside."

Improvement and progress are key words in Mr Slater's edict - but importantly, he adds, this is not at the expense of tradition.

"I am very much a traditionalist in education," he explains. "I like teachers to be teachers, not 'facilitators of learning'. We are not the sort of school that wants children calling us by our first names, and I hold our children to high standards.

"But on the flipside, I have the same expectations of the staff, and when there are times when we have to take control, we need to do that with humanity and morality."

As for the future, he remains fixed on long-term goals: "In five to 10 years, I want to see a thriving school with outstanding results, with an outstanding Ofsted report and with a massive waiting list," he says.

"And I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was absolutely doable."

At the same time, he is determined to restore King Solomon's popularity.

"It is essential that we remain part of the Jewish family of schools," he says. "We're only 20 miles around the M25. Our inclusivity is our strength, but our faith is what binds us together and gives us our moral identity."

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