Are there enough places available for every Jewish child?


We are fast approaching the end of April, several months since the first wave of secondary-school acceptance letters were sent out to year six pupils.

But, while families should be focusing on summer plans and preparing for the next milestone in their children's lives, many are instead finding themselves panicked and confused.

The cause? The mayhem that is the admissions process.

Maybe it's the post-millennium baby boom. Maybe it's the fact that Jewish schools have surged in popularity. Whatever the reason, this year our community's schools have received more applications than ever before.

And while admissions directors are busy sorting through acceptance letters, waiting-lists and appeals, parents are being left in the dark, anxiously waiting to find out if their child has a school to attend in September.

We do everything we can not to benefit from other people's difficulties

The problem lies in a number of factors - the first being that each school follows a slightly different procedure.

If we look at the five main Jewish state schools in and around London, JFS, JCoSS, Yavneh, Hasmonean and King Solomon, the first two offer places as a lottery on a round-by-round basis. With each school's third round of admissions due at the end of this month, prospective parents are holding their breath.

Both are transparent in who gets priority: children in care come first, followed by those who meet the religious practice test. Third in importance are siblings of pupils at the school. JCoSS also sets aside places for those who attend feeder primary schools.

Then we have Yavneh, which offers most of its places based on a family's geographical proximity. The Borehamwood school accepts pupils as and when spaces become available, adhering to a waiting list. As each school must refrain from conferring on applications, some pupils could find themselves placed highly on Yavneh's waiting list while also winning a place at either JFS or JCoSS. And while Hasmonean requires supplementary information signed by a rabbi, confirming the student has a genuine desire for Orthodox Jewish learning and observes the Sabbath, it too has a long waiting list - today, with 50 names. Again, lack of dialogue means pupils may not be spread fairly among each school. This is despite the efforts of Jewish education agency PaJeS to provide umbrella support.

This year, each school reported a spike in applications. Yavneh's hopeful numbers jumped from last year's 470 to 520, to fill only 150 spaces. JCoSS and JFS saw similarly high figures. Both said they had been "heavily oversubscribed".

Whether as a result of these high numbers, or pointing instead to the demographic bulge of this year's intake, Immanuel College also received a record number of applicants.

Against all this, King Solomon in Redbridge is gearing up for another year with a dearth of Jewish pupils. Distance from north London and a dwindling Jewish community means parents are hesitant to send their children to school in Essex.

"It's ridiculous, the suggestion that my son should get on a bus to Redbridge," said Pippa Singer, a mother of three from Edgware. She is currently waiting to hear whether her eldest son Joshua, a year-six pupil at Rosh Pinah, has won a place at JCoSS, Yavneh, JFS or Mill Hill County. So far, he has received no offers.

"It's not just about education, it's about the social aspect and mixing with kids who live locally," she said. "And I'm not spending half my life driving my child to Essex for a playdate."

According to Ms Singer, the frustration lies in the fact that there is no single, unified system to oversee applications.

"Yavneh has told us we're between 70 and 80 on the waiting list," she said. "They told me that, even though I live bang between JFS and Yavneh, as a crow flies I actually live slightly closer to JFS. That means people in Radlett and Bushey, who actually live further away from Yavneh, will get priority as it is still their closest Jewish school.

"But that isn't fair because JFS doesn't have the same criteria."

She added that Barnet Council had not helped the process. "All they say is that you have to wait," she said. "Their communication is diabolical. No one knows what they're doing."

Another contributing problem is the added factor of private schooling. Some families may have no intention of sending their child to a state school, but still hold on to a place in case they don't gain entry to their preferred private choice. This means that, on occasion, schools must wait until September - when a pupil doesn't turn up - to know if they can offer the space elsewhere.

As a result, some pupils will miss out on the "transition programme" that takes place in July, when they visit their future schools, make new friends and meet their soon-to-be teachers.

"I know it's an extremely anxious time for the kids as well as their parents," said Rachel Fink, head of Hasmonean Girls' campus. "When you're young and there are kids in your class who have a place and you don't, that can make you feel uncomfortable. I really feel for them."

According to Ms Fink, the school is at the mercy of "council bureaucracy".

"Much of this is out of our hands," she said. "It's a local authority issue. But I would urge parents holding places in two schools to make a decision.

"If they put themselves in the shoes of those parents whose children don't have places, this could really ease the bottleneck."

Sara Perlmutter, the Board of Deputies' education policy manager, echoed this frustration: "People hold on to two places - they always do this," she said. "If they all came out on the same day, it would be much more helpful."

Charles Dormer, headteacher of Immanuel, recognises the problem. For his part, the head insists parent comply with an April deadline to let them know whether they will be taking their offer. If they decline the place in good time, they can reclaim their £2,000 deposit fee.

"We're part of the team that works together with PaJeS to try to satisfy the demand from the community - that we're all happy to see growing," said Mr Dormer. "We all feel very sorry for parents and children who have found this year particularly difficult."

Mr Dormer stressed that "there are no bad guys in this process. We do absolutely everything we can not to benefit from other people's difficulties, including trying to give out as many scholarships and bursaries as we possibly can".

He added: "Ironically, we free up places at JFS and JCoSS by taking people who have them, and we also take people who come here because they haven't got a place."

Consensus is, therefore, that this year's numbers are bulging. And with so many anxious parents still waiting for offers, one question persists: are there really enough spaces available for every Jewish student?

According to Rabbi David Meyer, chief executive of PaJeS, "there are certainly spaces". But, he said, this involves sacrifice: "It doesn't necessarily mean every family will be getting their first choice," he said.

He suggested that, while panic is certainly mounting, parental concern is nothing new. "Everyone thinks it gets worse every year, but I think it's just people screaming louder," he said. "It is just about holding on and seeing what happens."

Yavneh's head, Spencer Lewis, agreed: "The best advice is not to panic," he said. "The overwhelming majority of applicants should eventually secure a place at a Jewish school, even if it is not their first choice."

While leading figures in Jewish education stress there are spaces available, they agree that parents must spread their nets more widely. This might mean reconsidering a shlep to Essex.

Over the years, King Solomon has hit headlines for its dwindling Jewish numbers. Redbridge has stopped being the community hub it used to be, and the school is testament to this. This year, it expects only 30 per cent of its 170 year-seven pupils to be Jewish.

"I would tell anyone who thinks there aren't enough places for Jewish education that this is just not the case," said King Solomon's senior teacher, Sikhu Ngwenia. "We have here a school that is under capacity. A school that is crying out for more Jewish students."

Mr Ngwenia recognised the fact that smaller numbers of Jews in Redbridge, coupled with changing leadership at the school, had contributed to the deficit. But he said that, with the arrival of new head Matthew Slater, the school was focused on turning this around.

"His goal is to increase the Jewish intake," Mr Ngwenia said. "To do that, we have one simple strategy: become an outstanding school. If our results improve, then we're confident that Jewish students will return."

In the meantime, patience is key. "I know it's enormously distressing but six months down the line you won't even remember the process," said Rabbi Meyer. "Within the broader community, there is space. My advice to parents is this: hold tight and don't panic."

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