Family & Education

‘There’s nothing like headship,’ says Yavneh Schools leader after a decade at the helm

Spencer Lewis, executive head of college in Borehamwood, has reached the milestone but at 56, and has no plans to move on


The turnover of headteachers at Jewish secondary schools has been so rapid in recent years that when one manages to see it through for a decade, it is cause to celebrate.

Spencer Lewis, executive head of Yavneh College in Borehamwood, has reached the milestone but at 56, he has no plans to move on.

“There are interesting jobs in education, but there’s nothing like headship,” he said.

“Covid was stressful and running a school at the moment is stressful but it’s fun and exciting — and there are always new things.”

He is the only head with the distinction of having run two Jewish secondary schools since he headed King Solomon High School in Redbridge for six years before his arrival at Yavneh.

And he had a particular reason to enjoy the start of the new academic year. The first group of students from the college’s younger sister, Yavneh Primary, which he oversees as executive head and which shares the same site, entered year 7.

“To see those kids we knew when they were four now settling into the secondary school and being part of the Yavneh family is really special,” he said.

“We have something we call the Yavneh way, the way of respect, kindness, courtesy and politeness — and they have known about that since they were four.

“It is not officially an all-through school but it feels like one. Every day you can see Yavneh College students volunteering in the primary school — helping with reading, helping with Hebrew reading or PE. It’s very normal to see the primary children using facilities in the secondary school building.”

That 59 of the primary’s 60 graduates have gone on to the college shows how much it is a community school.

“The longer you stay in a place, the more you get to know a community. Over the last 15 to 20 years Borehamwood has exploded in its Jewish life and that is pretty much reflected in the school. Most kids come from Borehamwood and Elstree. The geographical closeness of the students makes it very special,” he said.

The senior rabbi of the nearby United synagogue, Alex Chapper, is the school’s rabbi and “we have very good relationships with all of the community.

"That’s been borne out over the last two weeks with what has been going on in Israel —- in the collective communal atmosphere. Every morning break, we have been running special Tehillim (Psalms).”

The growing influx of more observant families to the area has also had an impact on school life, with more choosing the BMT — that’s the beit midrash track — in Jewish studies, which is more text-based than the general programme. Numbers have also grown for morning davening.

“We have a lovely minyan — kids have to come at 7.30.” The heavily oversubscribed college added a bulge class this year, taking 180 rather than 150 into year 7.

It has opened one every second year but he would like to make it a permanent feature, if only the school could find £4 million for the new classroom block it would need.

If Yavneh and JCoSS, which also has a bulge class this year, were able to maintain them annually, that should ensure sufficient Jewish state school secondary places in London outside the Charedi sector for the foreseeable future, he believes; but the numbers do not exist to justify opening another school.

While the tough period of Covid lockdown is now behind him, the experience has left a lasting imprint. For one thing, in the greater use of technology.

“We have a BYOD policy. When you used to go to parties, it was bring your own bottle, now it is bring your own device,” he said. “That started when we returned from Covid. Every child has to have a laptop. They don’t use it in every lesson because handwriting is important, but it enables the teacher to have a huge variety of educational tools.

“Much of the homework is set on Microsoft Teams. It enables students to present the work on Teams; it enables teachers to mark it on Teams. There is a dialogue between the teacher and student, which makes life easier for the teacher.”

But the school has also found itself having to pay more attention post-pandemic to issues of wellbeing and mental health. Although schools always had a pastoral side, he said, “we are dealing with things that at the beginning of my career, even at the beginning of my headship, I never thought we would have dealt with.

“The number of cases of student anxiety, eating disorders has definitely increased since Covid.”

As for the reasons, he said, “Honestly, I am not sure. I don’t think enough research has been done about it. We attribute a lot to Covid lockdown etc. and sometimes, it is nothing to do with that.

“I think social media has a huge impact on children. We’re seeing that during the Israel-Hamas conflict in trying to get children off social media. It’s incredibly difficult. It’s part of their life.”

Telling teenagers to ditch TikTok may be a non-starter, but the school tries coax them to be more judicious about their phone use. This term it introduced a new mobile phone policy “where all students have to hand their phones in. We acquired lockers for each kid and in the morning, everyone has to put them in. We spent a lot of money on those lockers.”

While children had never been allowed to use their phones in school time and had to keep them in their bags, the temptation to take them out at break or go into a toilet and message a friend had often been too great.

“It is healthier for young people to have a detox,” he said. “There was not a single parent or child who complained about the new policy.

"Yes, it’s annoying and if I asked children if they’d like to keep their phone, they’d say yes. Any issues of kids gathering in loos, we don’t have that now. They are talking to each other.”

Both the college and the primary are rated outstanding both by Ofsted and for Jewish studies. Since the college’s last inspection was late 2011, it is due another visit any day. Yavneh is prepared but “not obsessed about it”, he says.

“It’s not the be-all and end-all.”

Academically, the school performs “well above average” according to the Department for Education’s assessment of how much progress pupils make from entry to GCSE.

“We have high standards and expectations,” he says. “Teachers here go the extra mile. They give extra time; the children are constantly emailing them work. It didn’t happen in our day. If you wanted to talk to a teacher, you had to wait. Now it’s much more immediate.”

The school has also done a lot of work on “growth mindset”, applying the thought of American psychologist Carol Dweck. “Basically, the idea is your mind can expand,” he explains. “We don’t accept any of this ‘I am not good at maths’, ‘I’m not good at languages’.

"Just as if you go to the gym and your muscles will grow, the plasticity of your brain can grow. It’s about resilience and having a can-do attitude. Yes, you can get a B, but you can also get an A.”

In the recent King’s Speech, the government announced its ambition to introduce the Advanced British Standard — a plan for a wider sixth-form curriculum that would include some maths and English — although it could be another decade before this reaches the classroom, if it ever does.

While he agrees that children in the UK specialise very early, he believes that the aspiration for a broader education could be hampered by the struggle to hire enough teachers.

“Recruitment is the worst I have ever known it to be. Whereas I used to advertise for jobs and then whittle down the candidates, if you have a single one, you are doing well.”

It is harder for Yavneh since it is classified as on the “fringe” of the capital and therefore can only offer lower rates than schools situated in outer or inner London.
Budget demands in the past five or six years have led to reductions in A-level subject choices.

“We used to have small groups in technology, drama and languages. We have Ivrit, but we don’t have French or Spanish at A-level. It’s upsetting — there’s a plan for the future to reintroduce some of those subjects. But it’s a challenge because ultimately, if three or four kids want to do it, it’s financially very difficult. Really you need 15, but we’d take it for ten.”

One of the main areas of development will be more vocational options, especially with the planned advent of the new T-levels next year, incorporating work experience as well as study.

“Over the last ten years, the vocational offer has grown hugely,” he said. “Not all kids go to university. Quite a number have gone off to do apprenticeships. There was no vocational offer when I started here. I was told there probably would be no call for it.”

The main vocational programme is BTEC business studies. “We also run them in PE and have [done] in travel and tourism. We want to look at these new T-levels and adopt them for some [subjects] and to look at how we can diversify to move into the next decade of qualifications.”

He still teaches a sixth-form class in his specialist area, Jewish studies, and leads the school’s annual trip to Poland.

If he won the Lottery, he says, he would put money into enabling more students to afford gap year study in Israel “because that has a huge impact and would be transformational for them”.

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