Family & Education

JFS head: 'We're not trying to put the shutters up'

JFS head Jonathan Miller reflects on faith schools, Jewish identity and that Ofsted inspection


It is fair to say that, as a headteacher, you can't be shy. With your name on the door and hundreds of students' futures on the line, you stand as "front of house" to a big operation. The school's successes are your successes and, likewise, its failures are your failures.

Imagine, then, the added scrutiny you might receive as head of the oldest, and largest, Jewish school in Europe. One that stands as strongly for Anglo-Jewry as the Chief Rabbi or Golders Green. Say "JFS" and think history and tradition. Inevitably, Jonathan Miller's name will also crop up.

"There is pressure on any school," the Kenton school's headteacher begins. "You want to ensure that you continue to deliver a high quality, and find newer and better ways to ensure students have a richer education. But I think the size of our school gives us even greater opportunities to do that."

But for all its long-standing fame in the community, no one could have predicted the level of scrutiny Mr Miller faced when, in July of last year, Ofsted dropped in on the school for an unnanounced inspection. The inspecting body said it had acted following complaints, though it wouldn't elaborate further. JFS was promptly downgraded from an "outstanding" school to one that "requires improvement".

Mr Miller, who has led the school since 2007, remembers the scene. "The reason they turned up at the time was absolutely clear," he says. "They had only received a small number of complaints. But because of the nature of the complaints, which had to do with the safeguarding of pupils, they had to take it seriously."

‘I’m not going to get irritated or angry or resentful about the Ofsted inspection’

The allegation behind the complaints, he adds, "was both unfounded and found to be unfounded".

Six months later, and with more faith schools than ever facing spot inspections and subsequent downgradings, Mr Miller says the experience set him a "challenge to do better".

"I'm not going to get irritated or angry or resentful about the Ofsted inspection; they had to do what they had to do," he says. "That is history. Our challenge is to respond to the issues they raised.

"We had a review inspection in December, which found we were making good progress. Our summer exam results, which had not yet been released in July, were very good.

"Now we must place ourselves in the position so that when they next come back - and they will come back within the next 18 months - we will not get the same grades."

But did he think the inspection was unfair? If not the reasons why Ofsted dropped in, then its findings?

"The frustration I had was I didn't feel it gave the complete picture of life at JFS," says the headteacher, who first joined JFS more than 30 years ago as a chemistry teacher. "It is a relatively short document.

"Firstly, we were having computer problems at the time, which isn't an excuse, but is something they picked up on. Since then, we have changed our management information system. That will better allow us to demonstrate trends that they didn't feel they were seeing."

The school's log of data, he explains, was not up to scratch. "They wanted us to be able to document not just the attendance of the school, but the variation from year to year, boys and girls, special needs in each year and so on. We were not able to tell them at the touch of a button, but we will be ready for that the next time they come."

There is no denying the fact that, since news of JFS's downgrading broke, there has been a great deal of concern for schools in the community in general - especially since similar Ofsted drop-ins have become almost commonplace. While some worry that Ofsted has an agenda to devalue faith schools, the inspection service insists it is working indiscriminately.

Does Mr Miller worry there's an inherent bias against religious schools? His reply is measured. "I think it is an extraordinary coincidence that, just after the Trojan Horse affair, so many Jewish schools were being targeted, and still seem to be targeted," he says.

"But then, it is not just Jewish schools. It seems to be a focus on faith schools in general. Some of the country's Catholic schools have been downgraded enormously as well.

"I think it is entirely and totally reasonable that society needs to assure itself that, if there are groups of schools that are faith schools, they are playing a positive role. My concern is that there is such suspicion around faith schools in general, partly due to events happening internationally, that concern is leading to side effects that are, perhaps, excessive."

There is no denying that, during his long JFS career, Mr Miller has witnessed some seismic changes in Jewish education. A former Carmel College pupil, he began his teaching career at JFS in 1984, covering a chemistry teacher's maternity leave, before working his way up from head of chemistry and head of science to assistant head, deputy head and, eventually, headteacher.

The school has since moved from Camden to Kenton and has witnessed the founding of far more Jewish schools along the way. Where once it was unique, it is now one among a handful of highly regarded Jewish secondary schools. But according to its head, the essence of the school has not changed.

"I do believe that the heart of JFS is the same as it was in the 1980s," he says. "It has always attempted to have at its core a strong sense of Jewish identity, but at the same time interact with the wider community. That is the same today as it was in those days.

"When I was starting out, if I wanted to become a teacher of a Jewish school, the choice was either JFS or Hasmonean," he adds. "There are more Jewish schools now, which I think is great, because the community is extremely fortunate to have such a diverse range of schools on offer.

"We're all a little bit different, and we all respect each other enormously."

He is confident that, despite occasional criticism, faith schools will remain an integral facet of education in the UK.

"Society as a whole has been positively disposed to faith schools," he says. "There are few countries in the world that have the privilege, and it is a privilege, of having state-funded faith schools.

"That said," he adds, "it is certainly the case that there is a body of opinion that feels unenthusiastic at best, and antagonistic at worst, towards faith schools.

"I think that is sad for two reasons: one, I feel that such a view is illiberal and doesn't leave the freedom of choice for parents. And two, it doesn't understand what we're seeking to achieve in faith schools.

"At JFS, we are not trying to put the shutters up and have no interaction with the outside world."

Mr Miller is enthusiastic about the school's future, and stresses he will "continue to strive to improve the quality our students get".

"In the short and medium term, our aim remains responding to Ofsted," he says. "It has to be, and it's right that it should.

"In the longer term, there are all sorts of challenges: our facilities are developing, our curriculum is developing, our extracurricular is developing. JFS is a school for the whole community; that means students of all abilities.

"What we seek to try to avoid is students having to go elsewhere because we don't provide something specific for them."

He hopes to enable every pupil to strengthen their religious identity. "I want each one to make progress in their own Jewish journey," he says.

"I always frame it in that way because the backgrounds of our students are so diverse, with such different levels of Jewish knowledge between them.

"It is the equivalent of having an intake of students who have learnt Shakespeare at primary school and others who can't read English."

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