Family & Education

Clear divide between free school bids

The contest to open a new school in London boils down to a straight choice


The contest to open a new Jewish secondary school in London boils down to a straight choice: between the establishment-backed Kavanah College and the more independently-minded Barkai College.

But we are going to have to wait six months until we know the outcome. Since no one can see any justification for two new Orthodox free schools and even though the Department for Education could yet decide that neither bid makes the grade, the expectation is that one winner will emerge in the end.

While Kavanah says, if successful, it will try to launch as early as September 2017, opening a secondary school within such a tight deadline is a tall order, so 2018 may be a more realistic date. In which case, for a third year running, a number of children may be stranded without a place at a Jewish school next autumn.

Whoever wins will have to convince the DfE they can start a new school from scratch: to find a building, equip it, hire teachers and handle the finances.

Kavanah may enjoy the advantage of organisational back-up from the United Synagogue and the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR). The US may be not as heavily invested in Jewish day schools as it once was but it remains the denominational authority for two state-aided secondary and five primary schools.

No one can see justification for two schools

On the other hand, since the whole free school programme is supposed to encourage innovation and diversity in the education system, Barkai may score here since it promises a different style of modern Orthodoxy from that on offer in other Jewish schools.

Even at this stage - when the applications are already sitting in the DfE's in-tray - Partnerships for Jewish Schools, the Jewish Leadership Council's educational division, is trying to bring the two groups together. However, a merger looks unlikely.

Not only do they differ on their ideal location- Kavanah is more inclined towards Hertfordshire, Barkai towards Barnet - crucially, they differ over Jewish ethos.

As JFS, King Solomon and Yavneh already do, Kavanah is happy to take its religious cue from the Chief Rabbi, whereas according to the OCR, Barkai's programme has elements "not consistent with normative US practice".

What those problematic elements are the OCR and US have not made explicit. But it is safe to speculate that these include enabling girls to leyn from the Torah and inviting non-Orthodox rabbis to speak.

Barkai's backers include some familiar faces at the Limmud conference, so its willingness to push boundaries is no great surprise. By the somewhat conservative standards of mainstream UK Orthodoxy, Barkai appears a challenge, though it is hardly revolutionary. It has ruled out allowing partnership minyans - Orthodox egalitarian services. If girls read from the Torah at the school, it will be in girls-only prayer groups, still a step too far for the Chief Rabbi, who has resisted permitting it within his synagogues.

While Barkai has committed itself to a modern-Orthodox and not a pluralist approach to Jewish studies, its willingness to allow non-Orthodox rabbis to address students may make it too left-wing for the United Synagogue.

Whatever the dividing lines, the OCR and US should not be coy in declaring where it draws them.

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