Family & Education

What pupils - and parents - think about Jewish schools

Students are more likely to be more critical of Israel than their parents, pioneering UK study finds


Most parents who send their children to Jewish secondary schools are happy with the choice, according to the UK’s most comprehensive study of Jewish school education.

The Jewish Lives survey followed several hundred students who entered seven schools in 2011 and reported on their progress during various stages until their final year in 2018. 

It also compared their — and parents’ — views with a much smaller sample who opted for non-Jewish secondary schools.

Jewish schools have “delivered what the great majority of Jewish parents have wanted”, the research supervisors reported.

Most did not choose a Jewish school because they wanted their children to have an “intensive” Jewish education, but rather as “a launching pad towards a decent university education with a foundation of Jewish knowledge and tradition”.

Just under two-thirds of the students — 64 per cent — questioned in their final year thought their Jewish school experience had been “worthwhile” and only 15 per cent were negative. Parents were even happier with 70 per cent pleased with their choice of school, and 18 per cent not.

Overall, “the greatest educational success” of Jewish schools may be their Israel education, the researchers said.

Compared with pupils at non-Jewish schools, the Jewish school group left with “a greater understanding of Israel and a greater intensity of feeling towards the state”.
Another difference was that by the sixth form, parents at non-Jewish schools were “less committed to their children dating only Jewish people”.

One parent with children in non-Jewish schools said that while preferring them to marry Jewish, he was “realistic…I’ve got three boys; unlikely to get three Jewish daughters-in-law.”

The seven participating Jewish schools were King David High, Manchester and Kantor King Solomon, JCoSS, JFS, Immanuel College, Yavneh College and Hasmonean High School in London.

For opponents of faith schools who believe they foster insularity, the study argued otherwise. “Overall, respondents across all seven schools convey a sense of feeling equally at home as Jews and as citizens of the UK.”

In fact, the sense of connection with Britain increased over their first two years at school.

Around three-quarters of children and parents felt England was “their home” — a figure remaining steady throughout their time at school.

Students “look outward as well as inwards”, showing “a very healthy interest in the world around them”, the research concluded. For example, 90 per cent planned to vote when they had the opportunity (compared to a national average of 70 per cent).

The “vast majority” also recognised the importance of learning about other faiths. In year nine, for example, 67 per cent took the view they should learn about other religions, compared with just 14 per cent against.

When they entered school, 42 per cent felt “most comfortable” being with other Jews, but this dropped to 33 per cent by the sixth form.

Overall, pupils leave Jewish day school with a “deep sense of pride in being Jewish and in their community”, said the researchers,  Dr Helena Miller, Jewish education lecturer at the London School for Jewish Studies, and Dr Alex Pomson, the British-born principal of the international Rosov Consulting.

But they are more pragmatic about the idea of settling down with a Jewish partner, believing it would be “a lot easier” to marry someone Jewish rather than necessarily that it is the right thing to do.

The school study, sponsored by the Pears Foundation, is intended to be only a first stage. The researchers hope to follow the students through university and beyond to see the influence of Jewish schooling on the Jewish choices they make as young adults.

Jewish education

For most parents, the priority in choosing a school is the quality of its general academic education. 

While most students graduated with a “very positive” attitude to their Jewishness, some felt that, despite leaving with a reasonable Jewish knowledge, the school had not cultivated in them “a strong love for Jewish learning”.

Experience of Jewish studies varied. One student said, although he didn’t agree with his teacher’s beliefs, classes were enjoyable because debate was encouraged. But another student at the same school complained teachers avoided difficult questions and resorted to replying “Because God says so”.

When it came to taking a gap-year programme in Israel before university, there was a “dramatic difference between the observant Orthodox and everyone else”, the study found.

For students who did not take a gap year, 16 per cent cited the cost but 42 per cent said they did not want to waste time before going to university.


While 59 per cent of first-year pupils thought Israel an attractive place to live, there was a “significant drop” to only 41 per cent by the time they left school.

One of the most important findings of the research is the complex relationship students develop with Israel. 

They may feel a strong bond with the Jewish state but the older they are, the more critical they are likely to be.

“Overall, we see a strong emotional  and geographical connection to the land and people of Israel with a critical view of the state of Israel through its politics,” the researchers concluded.

By their GCSE year, close to 90 per of students had been to Israel once, compared to 70 per cent when they started school.

The more they visited the country, the more engaged they were with it.

For those who did not go on a school or a youth movement trip to Israel, the main reason was cost.

A higher proportion of GCSE students saw Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people than in year nine. But the older they were, the more aware they became of issues such as poverty, the status of Arabs in Israel and the dangers faced by the country.

Jewish schools do not appear to increase the incentive towards aliyah.

While 59 per cent of first-year pupils thought Israel an attractive place to live, there was a “significant drop” to only 41 per cent by the time they left school.

In year nine, 42 per cent thought Jews should be free to criticise Israel compared with 33 who did not. 

But the gap had grown wider four years later with sixthformers far more likely to think criticism acceptable — 61 per cent to 24 per cent. Sixthformers were also more accepting of criticism of Israel than their parents (see graph).

But few students felt disconnected from Israel — 15 per cent of sixthformers, a slight increase of two per cent from year nine.


Schools and educational organisations are still digesting the findings.

But in one instance, the practical response would seem obvious. If some teenagers are not going on trips to Israel because of the expense, there must be a case for expanding the available bursary pot.

But other questions do not have such ready answers. If students say their Jewish school did not give them a love of Jewish learning, does it mean the school failed? Or does it reflect a lack of Jewish aspiration from their parents?

And when they talk of “Jewish learning”, do they mean study of Torah, the most highly regarded activity according to the rabbis? Or learning more generally? And if the latter, does that  mean the Jewish curriculum of Jewish schools is too narrow, failing to encourage in Jewish students a wider appetite for Jewish history and culture?

The number of students deciding against a gap year also has implications. Traditionally, gap year schemes in Israel have provided the community with many of its future leaders.

In addition, whereas the more religious students go on to some form of Jewish higher education in yeshivah or seminary, for others Jewish studies stop at school.

So instead of gap years, do there need to be more university Jewish programmes , short post-university Israel experience schemes, or residential Jewish study retreats for young adults?

The findings on Israel may also have longer-term significance. The fact that sixthformers feel freer to criticise Israel than their parents could simply indicate teenage independence. 

Or it could mean younger Jews are growing up with a more complex relationship towards the Jewish state than earlier generations, combining emotional attachment with a greater willingness to express disapproval of it policies.

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