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Risk-taker who turned a school around

Margot Buller took on the headship of Clore Tikva before even setting foot inside it

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vMargot Buller admits she was “kind of rash” to take the job of interim head of Clore Tikva before she had even visited the Redbridge school.

An hour-and-a-half’s drive away from her home in Oxford, it was hardly on her doorstep. But then she said, “I’m a bit of a risk-taker.”

The risk has clearly paid off. When she arrived in September 2019, the pluralist primary was still in the shadow of a critical Ofsted report two years earlier grading it as a school that “requires improvement”. But when inspectors returned in February last year, they rated it good in all areas and she was confirmed as permanent head last November.

A teacher since 1982, she has been a head since 1999, bar six months when she “retired”. From an Irish-Catholic family, she came with deep knowledge of the faith sector, having headed Catholic and Church of England schools over here. In her previous role as executive head of two schools, within a year she had turned around one of them which had, she said, been in a “frighteningly, scarily bad” position.

The local authority that appointed her to Clore Tikva “painted a school that had enormous potential but just needed strong leadership to get going in the right direction”.

She brought in an additional deputy head for a year “because I knew on my own I couldn’t turn it around”. In August before starting, they came to take a look. “I read all the exercise books, I emptied the office and looked at everything and read everything. So when the staff came back, I knew what the issues were.”

What instantly made its mark on her was the Jewish ethos. “It is so strong, it’s in the bricks and mortar, it’s in everything about the school. The assemblies, the Kabbalat Shabbat, everything was done to a very high standard — I felt the rest of the school needed to be brought up to that standard.”

She felt “a strong affinity for the people and the culture. There are a lot of similarities between Jewish and Irish culture — family and what we believe is important.”

The other recognisable strength was the openness of staff and governors “and their “real hunger —they wanted to shine again”.

Within months, the school had introduced an “exciting” new curriculum, which was strong on inter-disciplinary links, including between Jewish studies and secular subjects.

“I have never worked with a group of staff who have progressed as quickly or who were up for a challenge as much as this group. They didn’t always realise it but they are amazing.”

Ofsted, in particular, was impressed with the teaching of Ivrit.

“They had never seen modern foreign language teaching like it. I haven’t either and I am a modern foreign language teacher.” (Her subjects are French and Gaelic.) “Ivrit teaching starts at nursery and it is remarkable.”

The inspectors also thought highly of children’s personal development. That area would have once earned an “outstanding” grade in previous inspections, she believed, but wasn’t quite enough under the new framework. “The bar is so high now.”

But Clore Tikva had little time to enjoy its Ofsted success before it had to adapt to lockdown. With little IT infrastructure — “ a couple of laptop trolleys that were a bit out of date” — teachers had to train over the Easter holidays last year to bring them up to speed with Google Classroom.

By the next lockdown at the start of this year, the school was in a better place. Thanks to grants and donations, it had moved from no Chromebooks to 90. “That is the other thing about Jewish schools — the generosity and support of the community is unlike any other school I have ever been in” she said. Teachers could now deliver at least three hours’ live daily programming under lockdown and TAs were also doing breakout sessions for phonics and maths.

She is keen that children see the potential benefits of technology and recalls as one of the year’s highlights a digital link-up with their partner school in Israel, Kerner, for Chanukah. Children in each school had made their own chanukiah, which they had dedicated to someone, and at the event they swapped stories about it.

“Then we shared a joint lighting,” she said. “It felt like we were all together in one room. That’s the kind of thing I want to do. For the children to hear Ivrit spoken in Israel is vitally important.” One Israeli girl who was isolating was able to join in from her bedroom.

Now she hopes the school’s rising reputation will lead to an improvement in numbers. It has 44 in reception with room for 60 but local demographics, not least the decrease in the Jewish population, make recruitment a challenge.

“We are 66 per cent Jewish and there are people of all faiths and none but the school is a strong Jewish school. There is no compromise on that,” she stressed. “The children are very confident and proud of their Judaism and they learn about it but the children of other faiths are equally part of it.”

From experience, she believes “people tend not to send their children to faith schools unless they are of a faith themselves, unless they know something about it”. But she hopes that Clore Tikva’s inclusive ethos will prove attractive. “I feel everyone has a home here.”

Having grown up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, she knows only too well the damage caused by prejudice and wants to ensure that non-Jewish families understand “how worrying” antisemitism is.

It matters greatly to her that “we can spread the positive message of what it means to be Jewish”.

She also wants to build closer ties with the local Kantor King Solomon High School. “I am so impressed with the head of King Solomon [Hannele Reece]. I saw the young people [from King Solomon] at Holocaust Memorial Day and at the PaJeS awards. If I had a child, I’d be sending them there.”

 

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