Family & Education

Sent to the headteacher

It’s been 15 years since Sandy Rashty left Naima JPS. She revisited her old stomping playground to see what has changed


I have been called into the headmaster's office - but this time, it's not for a disciplinary.

For the first time in 15 years, I have been invited to visit my old primary by the man who set up Naima Jewish Preparatory School in 1983.

Rabbi Abraham Levy, the emeritus spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, is much unchanged. I recall sitting cross-legged on the assembly room floor, watching him deliver speeches at the start of each school year. His tone, manner and message remain the same, but he has watched Jewish education in the country transform since he first founded the Maida Vale preparatory - one of London's two main Sephardi primary schools.

Over the years, he has seen a surge in Jewish schools, more scrutiny of faith-led learning, and an overhaul of admissions following the landmark JFS case in 2009, when the school was found to have discriminated against applicants on the grounds of race.

Rabbi Levy describes the case, which led to the the admission of non-Jewish students to Jewish schools provided they have sufficient synagogue points, as "a blunder, terrible".

As an independent school, Naima JPS still admits pupils who are "Jewish according to the halachah".

But according to Rabbi Levy, JFS should have learnt from his more flexible definition of a halachic Jew.

He says: "How do I go about accepting whether a child is Jewish or not?

"As far as I am concerned, I'll accept a child if their parent has converted to Judaism in a reputable Beth Din.

"I tell all parents that this is a Jewish school with Jewish values. If they do not respect that, this is not the school for them.

"We don't only admit children who are shomer Shabbat - that is not the Jewish way. The Jewish way is to accept everybody and try and make them a better Jew."

He says that, before the JFS case, "some students would be blocked. I had numerous confrontations with JFS. I would say: 'I have educated this child, Jewishly, for eight years'".

He adds that we live in a world of "religious extremes.

"There are schools that only care about secular studies. Or, there are religious schools where the main preoccupation is with training boys to go to yeshivot and girls to go to seminary.

"Because we are non-judgmental, we have a very healthy attitude towards religion and life."

No doubt, the school's fees are steep - £3,990 per term. As a result, it attracts international families from Israel, Russia, America, France and Brazil.

For now, the 186-person school, which is hoping to undergo a £1.5 million extension above its Saatchi Synagogue, has reached its capacity.

Before I'm taken on a tour by two pupils, past my old coat hook, through my old classroom and off to have a fish and chips lunch with my former teachers, I meet the school's headteacher.

Bill Pratt, who joined the school after a series of "rocky" heads, defends the fees on the grounds of providing a "top education". Sitting in his office with Rabbi Levy, he says: "We have very small classes, no more than 18 or 19 students. We can also split up classes for children where English is not their first language. We can stretch the bright ones and look after the weaker ones.

"I think it's a fantastic school with the right balance of Jewish and secular education. The two are integrated.

"In art, they draw pictures to do with Rosh Hashanah. In English, they can be writing about Queen Esther."

And as for greater scrutiny of faith schools by bodies like Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate, he adds: "Faith schools could potentially be targeted. We do have to be mindful of what is going on in other schools.

"We teach children to be mindful of other religions."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive