Chief Rabbi appeals for help as schools face budget crisis

A dramatic fall in donations from parents is leaving headteachers desperate for cash as cost-of-living surges


The Chief Rabbi has appealed for parents to help as Jewish schools across the UK struggle to make ends meet amid the worsening cost-of-living crisis.

Community schools rely on voluntary contributions from parents to maintain their Jewish study provision, security measures and wider activities. But donations have slumped as the pandemic is replaced by rising inflation and retail prices.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis told the JC: “I know just how much our schools rely on voluntary contributions. Their budgets were tight even before the pandemic struck and costs are now escalating dramatically.

“Any reductions in levels of voluntary contributions will inevitably have a negative impact on crucial provision within our schools.

“Jewish education is an essential investment in the future of our community and a primary responsibility for any parent.

“Margaret Thatcher used to recall that when she was the Education Secretary, Chief Rabbi Jakobovits would remark that she was really our Defence Secretary, because the schooling of our children provides the most important protection they will ever receive.

“Indeed, the survival of the Jewish people over thousands of years can be attributed to its steadfast commitment to education, even in the most difficult of times.”

Speaking to the JC, headteachers revealed that the “massive” reduction in donations has left them facing “painful” decisions in the coming academic year.

School leaders said that smaller budgets would mean that staffing — the biggest cost for schools — may have to be reduced, leading to larger class sizes, poorer teaching and looming cuts to security and Jewish studies lessons.

JFS was facing a “huge shortfall”, said one parent who had attended a recent fundraising meeting at the country’s largest Jewish school.

Requested amounts vary; JFS asks for £1,620 per year for a child, but at the higher end of the range, Hasmonean High School for Boys asks £5,750.

The Chief Rabbi said: “With the cost-of-living crisis continuing to place huge pressures upon families across our community, many are having to make very difficult decisions about their charitable contributions.

“Our community is blessed with numerous  excellent causes, ranging from welfare organisations to religious institutions. All of them need our support more than ever, because they too are having to make very difficult decisions about their services.”

While school leaders were hesitant to speak out publicly for fear of upsetting parents, one chairman of governors, Joshua Rowe, of King David High School Manchester, was prepared to criticise those who could afford to pay but failed to contribute.

The school had experienced a “massive drop-off in voluntary contributions in the last few months,” he said.

“We saw a fall during Covid. We’ve seen it, but it’s such a struggle. The saddest thing is that some people who are very poor make a contribution.

“Then there are those that can afford it all and go on holiday to Florida three times a year, then look you in the eye and say ‘we’re not contributing’. It’s shameful.”

Mr Rowe said that thanks to the generosity of donors and trustees, as well as major fundraising drives, King David has been able to make up the gap so far.

But if the decline in donations continued, he said, educational standards would be affected.

“Everything would be reduced,” he said. “Bigger classes, less choice. To reduce the school standards is not complicated. To maintain standards is complicated,” he said.

Gareth Jones, chief executive of the Jewish Community Academy Trust (JCAT) – a group of four Jewish primary schools in North London, to be expanded to include JFS  – spoke of the difficulties of setting the schools budgets for next year.

JCAT schools saw a reduction in donations of just under £200,000 from 2020 to 2021 as the Covid pandemic hit (from around £1,820,000 to £1,623,000).

Now, as families grapple with the higher cost of living, soaring inflation is further hitting schools, while a pay award for teachers with limited additional government funding could tip budgets over the edge.

Mr Jones said JCAT’s primaries had “dealt admirably” with the impact and were grateful for continued parental support amid the pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.

“The budget-setting process has been rather more painful this year,” he said.

“While careful pruning means most schools will go into the new financial year with a balanced budget and a small contingency, we would appeal to all parents to consider support for our schools as a primary charitable responsibility during these difficult times so that we can continue to provide an excellent range of educational opportunities.”

According to research carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in the first year of lockdown, nearly one in seven Jewish parents were considering reducing their contribution or were uncertain what they would do.

Yavneh College and Primary saw donations dip only slightly during the Covid pandemic, according to executive headteacher of the two schools, Spencer Lewis.

However, its financial report reveals that staffing costs increased by nearly half-a-million pounds from 2020 to 2021, and the school has had a more difficult time budgeting for next year.

Mr Lewis told the JC: “We are so lucky to receive government funding for security as negotiated with and distributed by the CST but this, sadly, does not cover the entire security budget and VCs [voluntary contributions] are used for this.”

Jewish education was “almost exclusively paid for through parental contributions,” he explained.

“Because about 65 per cent of our parents contribute to Yavneh Giving, we are always having to work hard both to balance the budget and to try to persuade more people to contribute just a little more if they can.”

Headteachers who did not want to be quoted on the record spoke about their fears as autumn approaches.

Although budgets are being set now for the next year, a massive spike in energy costs, coupled with a pay rise for teachers and the uncertainty of any increase in government funding, means that school bosses are facing soaring outgoings that will put pressure on budgets.

Since staff costs are the highest component of these, the easiest way to balance the books is to reduce the number of teachers. Hertsmere Jewish Primary School, a member of JCAT, for example, reduced its staff costs by nearly £180,000 last year.

Michael Goldstein, president of the United Synagogue, which works with 24 Jewish schools across the UK, said: “The budget schools receive from the government does not stretch to accommodate all these needs, it quite simply falls short.

“As a result, low VCs reduce everything a school can offer, not just in Jewish studies, as is widely believed.”

While a financial commitment was “not compulsory,” he said, “when voluntary contributions are not received, it does and will continue to affect what a school can achieve.”

Dr David Moody, the recently appointed headteacher at JFS in London, said school finances were “incredibly difficult”. He has been holding meetings with parents across the school, as well as appealing by email and phone calls to increase voluntary contributions to make up a deficit of £350,000.

One JFS parent who attended a fundraising meeting said Dr Moody had described a “huge shortfall” in the school’s finances, desperately appealing to parents to pay their contributions if they could.

The school’s expenditure ran to £18.7 million in the previous academic year, according to the Schools Financial Benchmarking Service.

Dr Moody told the JC: “Voluntary contributions mean smaller class sizes, more experienced teachers, a greater number of options choices, more learning support assistants and more members of staff to support the safeguarding, welfare and mental health of pupils.

“Nationally, school finances are incredibly difficult and represent one of the most significant concerns of headteachers across the country for the last decade. The generosity of Jewish parents has sheltered our schools from much that storm. If that shelter is to continue then parental contributions must be the norm rather than the exception.”

JFS understood that not all parents could afford contributions, especially in the current economic climate, he said. “Our message to parents is clear,” he added. “We will fight tooth and nail each day to build the very best school we can but, beyond that, if we reach a point where the school is consistently receiving donations for 70 percent of its children, I promise that what we build will be truly exceptional.”

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