Disappointment and regret: my experience as a JFS parent

'Yes, we recognised that it must be difficult to deal with hordes of Jewish parents. But the clear message was that parents would be kept at arm’s length.'

June 10, 2021 09:22

I still remember the day my son was offered a place at JFS. It was late in the school application process, and we were beginning to lose hope that he’d  follow up his Jewish primary school with a Jewish secondary school. But here it was, the golden ticket! I accepted it immediately - before anyone could withdraw it. I didn’t even wait to consult my husband or the boy himself.

Those were the days when JFS  basked in the glory of an Ofsted report which judged it excellent in every category possible. That, added to the fantastic building and grounds at the school’s site in Kenton, made me ignore faint warning bells before my son even started there . One was the way that some kids were split into an ‘accelerated’ stream, with form names that made it look like some were better than others. To be honest, I’d have questioned this more if he hadn’t been one of the accelerated group.

Another was the way that we were told at the very first parents’ open evening to trust the school, and not bother the staff with too many queries and complaints. Yes, we recognised that it must be difficult to deal with hordes of Jewish parents. But the clear message was that parents would be kept at arm’s length.

These, it turned out were the problems that came up again and again during my son’s time at JFS. Poor communication with parents, and an in-built elitist attitude in which opportunities were waved under children’s noses before being whisked away and given to the chosen few.

Sometimes my son was among the chosen few, and that was great. And  he had a few exceptional teachers. But the experience of wanting to do things and then being told he wasn’t quite good enough -  for no obvious reason -  again and again, made him sad, and then bitter and then angry. We watched a happy, enthusiastic child turn cynical and disruptive. 

The fuss made of the children who could afford the nine week trip to Israel, infuriated him. And by the time a senior teacher told an entire Y10 class that they were ‘failures’ for not being picked as school officers (yes, I complained, and yes, he apologised), it felt as though the school was actually quite bad for him.

He hated the disciplinary regime, which seemed obsessed with petty uniform issues. Bigger issues – drugs, bullying – seemed to be things the school chose to ignore. We were told early on that the school didn't get involved in the children's social lives, even though that was a huge part of their JFS experience. From a Jewish point of view, the main aim seemed to be to protect the frum from the less observant by putting them in separate classes. 

I say this with enormous regrets. I know kids who had problems at JFS and the school responded magnificently with fantastic academic support and pastoral care.  But that was not the case for every child. Certainly, whenever we sought help, the response was disappointing.

Somehow as well the problems were magnified, because our expectations of a Jewish school were a little higher than of non-Jewish ones. We parents wanted to feel like an extended family, not unwelcome intruders. 

That was a few years back, and things have changed since then. An Ofsted report knocked off most of those ‘excellents’, and Mrs Fink was installed as head. By many accounts she was doing a good job in changing the JFS culture. She certainly believed passionately that every child mattered. But it’s a huge school, with a long history and the pandemic must have made everything even more difficult.

The lack of communication to parents this week -  absolutely classic JFS. Let’s hope that Michael Wilshaw will bring his considerable experience to bear to build on Mrs Fink’s work -  and to ask JFS some difficult questions about its past in order to improve its future.



June 10, 2021 09:22

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