Family & Education

Music's in the soul of 'uptown' Simon Marks

The only non-Charedi Jewish school in the inner city of London is proud of its multi-faith harmony


“We could change this whole world with a piano,” sang the children of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School. “Add a bass, some guitar, grab a beat and away we go.”

And away they went, with a mash-up of Ed Sheeran’s What Do I Know — from which the above lyrics come — One Direction’s Something Just Like This and Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling, which launched their concert for prospective parents last week.

The school’s most recent tests show that, academically, it is performing “more than 10 per cent above the national average,” said headteacher Gulcan Metin Asdoyuran. 
But education, she stressed, “is not just about the results”. Which is why she chose to highlight the school’s creative side  for the open day.

While budgetary pressures and teacher shortages generally have led some educationists to warn about the future of music in schools, Simon Marks certainly has no intention of putting down its instruments. 

The concert marked the first public performance of its new orchestra, formed in September, with a repertoire that included Uptown Pesach, the Maccabeats’ festive adaptation of Mark Ronson’s hit Uptown Funk.

“Music is embedded in the DNA of Simon Marks,” said music teacher Paul Russell. “It is a pleasure to teach here each week with such talented and dedicated students.”
The past few years have not been easy for the only non-Charedi Jewish school in Hackney — indeed in the inner city of London. But Ms Metin, who joined in September 2017, believes “we are on the up now — it’s very positive”.

Rabbi Roni Tabick, rabbi of the local Masorti community in Stoke Newington and a governor with children at Simon Marks, observed: “My synagogue is growing. There is a bunch of young professionals looking to move to Hackney and Dalston. They are coming and raising their families here, so I think there is a future. There is such a lovely warm feeling of family.”

Around 48 per cent of the 115 pupils are Jewish, with just under a third Christian and others from Muslim, Sikh and Hindu families. “They like the fact that the Bible is part of our learning and they are interested in our values,” Ms Metin said.

The diversity was one attraction for Jennifer Bennett, one Jewish mother who is planning to send her children there. While she lives some distance away in Loughton, Essex, the family has just opened a dry-cleaning business in the vicinity of the school. “I like the fact there are different cultures and they also learn about the Jewish religion,” she said. “And I like the fact that it’s a small school.”

The spacious new William Sharron Early Years Building, which was inaugurated a year ago, has had “a real impact”, Ms Metin said, with this year’s reception class having risen from nine to 19. 

She has shown around a fair number of Israeli families this year, who see Stoke Newington as “an upcoming area”.

All students, regardless of faith, take Jewish studies and Ivrit. The head is particularly keen to see improvements in Hebrew. “When I came in, the teaching of Ivrit was quite old-fashioned. I couldn’t see enough dialogue and conversation. We have revolutionised that,” she said.

“My aspiration is for everyone to be a fluent reader and able to do comprehension.”

The school’s growth may depend on being able to provide transport for families from out of the borough. One mother from Islington who came to the concert liked what she saw but was worried about the journey.

“One of the things we are looking at is whether we can get a bus to do a collection in the morning,” Ms Metin said.

As parents left after the concert, a fresh group of visitors gathered in the corridors. The scene would have gladdened the heart of any minister promoting community cohesion. They were boys and girls from the Olive School, the neighbouring Muslim primary, who had come to play football against Simon Marks.

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