Family & Education

JFS wins wellbeing award

The school regularly checks on how students and staff are coping during the pandemic


Every week teachers at JFS have the chance to unwind from the stresses of the job at an online yoga session. It is just one of the activities that the school has put in place as part of its commitment to the welfare of pupils and staff.

When headteacher Rachel Fink arrived in May 2018, one of her aspirations was to rebuild the school’s pastoral framework and bring “wellbeing into the forefront”.

Now its efforts have been recognised by the receipt of a Wellbeing at Schools Award, an accreditation programme run by Optimus Education in conjunction with the Children’s National Bureau.

Achieving the award, which JFS registered for over two years ago, was the result of “a long, detailed piece of work, looking at changing the culture within the school,” said Raynn Bruce, assistant head with pastoral responsibility. “It was about changing the view both of students and, importantly, staff as well.

“You can’t just have a wellbeing team that is responsible for wellbeing. It is something that everyone has to buy into.”

Its focus on wellbeing has proved invaluable over the past year, when lockdown and the impact of Covid-19 has put extra strain on both teachers and children.

In the first lockdown, Mrs Fink explained, “each head of year created a watchlist of students, those that we felt might be vulnerable and need extra support.”

Each year group has its own pastoral support officer able to refer other students for support. They are the “our eyes and ears on the ground,” said JFS wellbeing practitioner Nicki Cohen.

The multi-disciplinary wellbieing team, led by deputy head Rabbi Howard Cohen, meets biweekly so “students who have bereavements, who have had issues at home, who are in need of counselling we can refer to the counsellors who are available,” Mr Bruce said. And if it is not something it can deal with in-house, then they can be recommended to outside agencies.

There are regular check-ins to see how pupils across the school are faring as well as drop-in sessions.

“Topics come up such as how to be motivated during this time of lockdown or keeping up the love for learning,” said wellbeing practitioner Nikki Levitan. “We’ve been doing quite a lot on mobile phone usage and what’s healthy and finding a balance between online and offline.”

There’s even a dedicated school wellbeing page on Instagram whose almost 1,000 followers can get tips on how to keep up their spirits.

“One of the things we are really working towards is to build more emotional literacy within our school,” Mrs Levitan said. “That means encouraging staff and students to be able to talk more openly about their feelings and how they are doing and have the language for that.”

If someone is feeling low and having a hard time, it should be normal for them to express that, she said.

Every Monday, one of the wellbeing team takes the daily Pause for Thought podcast, blending some reflection on wellbeing into the chosen theme for the week.

And while remote learning presents its challenges, some of the groups that contribute to school life— such as the music or the visibility for disability group — continue digitally.

For staff, there is a regular drop-in session on Wednesday lunchtime open to all. “It’s nice to check in with each other and remember what other people’s faces look like,” said Mrs Cohen.

Mrs Levitan, who runs the yoga and offers mindfulness too, said, “What we are trying to do is not rocket science, it’s just encouraging being well, looking after ourselves and not burning out.”

The school has had to support staff “who have been off sick, or slow to recover, or dealing with family members when they are the only person to look after them or have had their own bereavements,” Mrs Fink said.

Right now, the work-life balance is particularly difficult. “I don’t think anyone has a great work-life balance at the moment because there isn’t much life but a lot of work”.

But she feels the school overall has “manged to keep morale up”— she makes a point of highlighting and celebrating “all the great things we do”.

Staff are surveyed “every few weeks because we want to know how they are developing their use and understanding of technology and what further support they would ned”. And whether they feel supported generally.

“If we can support staff, they are obviously able to support students more effectively as well.,” she said.

That JFS was chosen as one of the five Jewish schools to pilot the Jewish Leadership Council’s wellbeing project two years ago has helped it make progress.

But the award does not mean it has accomplished its goal. “For us, it’s a springboard to continue,” Mrs Fink said, “to develop, expand and enhance what we are doing.”


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