Family & Education

JCoSS will not be resting on its laurels, says new head

Dr Melanie Lee qualified as a teacher only 13 years ago - now she is in charge of one of the Jewish community's biggest schools


When 100 JCoSS year 9s recently boarded an El Al flight for the school’s annual trip to Israel, one passenger sat up and took notice. She was prompted to write to the school — not to complain but to compliment it on the exemplary conduct of its students.

It was a gratifying moment for Melanie Lee, who is about to complete her second term as head of the pluralist secondary that famously aspires to turn out “mensches”.

Dr Lee inherited an institution in pretty good shape. It has increased its year-7 intake from 180 to 210 and is still over-subscribed. It was close to outstanding in its Ofsted report at the end of last year. And it earned top marks for Jewish studies from Pikuach, which recommended its emphasis on character building as a model for other schools.

But JCoSS will “not be resting on our laurels”, she said.

Her rise to the top has been rapid, given that she qualified as a teacher only 13 years ago at the age of 38. Until then, she had been an academic, with a PhD from Imperial College and a post-doc at University College London’s Institute of Opthalmology, researching circadian biology — the regulation of the body’s clock. She had a paper published in the magazine Science, “which is a pretty big deal for a PhD student”.

But she always felt a pull towards teaching. She took time out to be with her son and daughter before primary school, who are both now at university. And before starting her training course, she did some work experience. “I fell in love with teaching, I always knew I would,” she said. “This is what I am meant to do. People who find a vocation they love and are passionate about are so lucky. I am one of those really lucky people.”

Her first job was as a biology teacher at Yavneh College, which happened to be local: she and her family belong to Borehamwood and Elstree United. “Yavneh was the just perfect fit for me. Everything I learned at Yavneh, every opportunity I got, all gave me the foundation to do what I am doing now,” she said.

“Being a mum, having had a previous career, having a PhD, I think that inspired more confidence in the students in a way. It allowed me to be a much better teacher than if I had trained to be a teacher when I was in my twenties.”

Moving up the ranks, she joined Yavneh’s senior leadership team in 2013 and became deputy head in 2017. When she joined Yavneh, the school was only a few years old but in January she moved to the even younger JCoSS. “I probably wouldn’t have left Yavneh for any school but here,” she said.

She feels a natural affinity to its pluralist spirit. “I am not frum but my Jewish identity is very strong. I find it a total privilege to be a teacher in the Jewish community.”

While she is now part of the largest United congregation, she grew up in south-west London, attending Kingston and Surbiton Synagogue, where her grandfather was a warden. In her teens, she went to the pre-Tribe Jewish Youth Study Groups — “I loved my time in Study Groups, we used to go to winter schools, summer schools. I still have friends I met there.”

Her daughter enjoyed happy days at Yavneh but her son went to Merchant Taylors’ as “he didn’t want to go to a school where I taught!”

When she arrived at JCoSS and held one-to-one meetings with her staff, she said “she couldn’t shut them up” about why they loved the school but had to “tease out” suggestions of where improvements could be made. Since no school is perfect and there is always room to do better, she is introducing changes but more in the way of “evolution than revolution”.

Without detracting from the “incredible” pastoral support, she is aiming to redress the balance by putting more focus on teaching and learning.

“My real passion is making sure there is a brilliant teacher in every classroom,” she said.

The goal is to encourage professional development — not necessarily to achieve better exam grades. “Student outcomes are very good already. My drive is not to get more 9s or A*s. That will probably happen if you improve the quality of teaching and learning —  that should happen,” she said.

It’s about understanding “you can be even better, not because you are not good enough but because you can be even better. It’s challenging oneself, it’s not being in a comfort zone, it’s being willing to take some risks. I think that’s what the staff here need and want.”

And while she remains on “a steep learning curve” as a new head, she is planning to go to the coalface and start teaching some GCSE biology herself from September. “If you are a headteacher and trying to enhance teaching and learning, which is my goal, how can I sit here and talk about what is good teaching and learning and not do it myself? You’ve got to walk the walk. I feel quite strongly about that.”

Looking ahead, she and her team will be planning the introduction of the new  T-levels in September 2025. The A-level and university pathway is “not right for every child”. She wants the school’s vocational pathway to “carry the same kudos and make the parents as proud” as a place to read law at a top university.

Mensch will continue to be a key word in the school’s lexicon. “Children understand that developing those characteristics is just as important as GCSEs and A-levels,” she said.

But there is another m-word that has been increasingly emphasised in recent years: machloket, which might be translated as the art of argument and learning to listen to both sides.

The formal Jewish studies programme was recently enhanced with the option of taking a HPQ (Higher Projecti Qualification) in addition to GCSE religious studies.

The first HPQ cohort, who do a research project of their choice, equivalent to half a GCSE, completed it last summer. There are 75 students currently doing it now with another 28 to join in September.

“Children here are so respectful of the Jewish education and are really enthusiastic about it,” she said.

The “refreshing thing” about JCoSS, she said, is that “you can come here and be whatever type of Jew you’re comfortable with and that’s accepted”.

But its pluralist ethos did not please everyone in the community when it opened. “I know it was controversial at the start. Look at us now. We are massively oversubscribed,” she said.

It has one Orthodox rabbi in its Jewish studies department and “a really good relationship” with the local United rabbi, Samuel Landau of Barnet Synagogue.

Approaching its 13th anniversary, it has secured its place on the Jewish school map. A delegation of 60 teachers from Darca, an Israeli network that specialises in education to vulnerable students, recently paid a visit to see how things are done.

“I think people’s view of JCoSS has probably changed,” Dr Lee said — “quite rightly.”

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