From his CV, you might expect to find kippah-wearing chemistry teacher Adam Boxer in a Jewish school: an alumnus of Sinai Primary and Hasmonean High Schools in London, who spent two years in yeshivah before university and whose work with Bnei Akiva helped steer him towards a career in education.
He did his training at Yavneh College, got his first job at JFS and then after two years moved to JCoSS. But while he enjoyed working within the Jewish community — and thinks one day he may return — after three years at JCoSS, he wanted to gain experience outside.
“I felt I was coasting,” he said. “The longer you are at a school, the easier it gets.” What lodged in his mind was the observation he heard one day that the type of children who attended JCoSS would likely achieve good exam grades wherever they went.
“I wanted to see what it was like working somewhere where if the kids didn’t have you as their teacher, or didn’t go to this school, they would actually be getting a worse academic deal.”
Every morning, on his way to JCoSS, he would drive past another school, The Totteridge Academy (TTA), once known as the Ravenscroft School, where he knew that “there were things happening that were very different”
While the name Totteridge evokes images of one of London’s leafiest districts, the profile of TTA’s student body was far from comfortable suburbia. Close to half of its roll in 2019 had been eligible for free school meals at some stage and for more than a third, English was not their first language.
When he arrived as head of science in 2019, the school was under half full, with around 450 students. “That’s another thing you don’t notice until you leave Jewish schools, which are oversubscribed.”
But TTA was making progress. Its last Ofsted report in 2019, rating it good with outstanding features, noted it had “improved rapidly” since being taken on by the country’s largest academy trust, United Learning, in 2016.
Its last Progress 8 score, measuring how far pupils have come from entry to GCSE, was ranked “well above average” at 0.6. Its maths progress score at 1.48 — meaning pupils were getting a grade and a half better at GCSE than might have been expected — is “genuinely remarkable”, he says.
“The reputation of the school has skyrocketed in the community. Our year 11 is 79 [children], our year 7 is 180 with a waiting list. Colleagues said it is the first time in living memory that the school has been oversubscribed.”
Still, his first year had been “brutal,” he recalled. “I found it difficult to see that things were getting better, but my line manager assured me they were.”
He was just one of three science teachers when he began, though the department has since increased to five.
At JCoSS, he said, he enjoyed “a relaxed and easy life — nobody bothered me and I just got on with my job. At TTA, I’m pushed so hard, there is a sense of urgency that every second counts and is important. If we don’t do right by our kids, they won’t be ok.”
While there may have been some difficult pupils at JCoSS and JFS, the “scale and proportion is different at TTA” and some of the difficult students are “a lot more challenging”.
Whereas Jewish schools can call on a strong charitable network to support development, for TTA it is not so easy. “TTA could do with being levelled and rebuilt — it’s not possible. We are doing piecemeal work, our labs are currently being rebuilt”.
His office is basically a store cupboard with a leak.
There are six other Jewish staff at the school and he has never had problems leaving early in winter for Shabbat or taking off festivals. The children are the “best exemplifiers of pluralism, openness and inclusiveness” and when they have occasionally brought up his Jewishness, it is out of curiosity, such as the Muslim pupil who wanted to know about the Creation Story and the Big Bang.
Now 30, he writes a blog called A Chemical Orthodoxy, in which he shares tips on how to make videos or cut workloads and reflects on educational methods and ideas.
Teaching can be rather like exercising — hard at the time with the benefits apparent only afterwards.
“It’s an exhausting profession,” he says. “By the time I get to a weekend, I’m finished, I’m on my last legs. It is physically, mentally, emotionally draining.
“Yes, it’s rewarding… but often the reward is something that accumulates over time and is something you can look back on with pride, but when you are in the thick of it, you don’t see it.”