“The time is now” to take a decisive step forward in tackling the growing shortage crisis in places at Jewish schools.
That was the key message conveyed to more than 290 families who congregated at Edgware United Synagogue last Thursday evening to learn more about plans to open a new Jewish secondary school in Barnet.
The proposed new free school – the first of its kind in the UK - has been named Kedem High School, and is the brainchild of Andrew Rotenberg and Rabbi David Lister, who are respectively chair of governors and principal at Rosh Pinah Jewish Primary in Edgware.
The pair have joined forces with Lilac Sky Outstanding Education Services, an educational agency which was called in to manage Rosh Pinah last year, to apply to open the new free modern orthodox school under their newly-created Nekadma Trust – with the view to opening it either in September 2017 or 2018.
“The time is now to do something about the issue of secondary school places,” Mr Rotenberg told the audience. “We have been reading about the problem in the JC for a year and a half. It’s getting worse. This issue needed to be out in the open as an adult honest discussion.”
Mr Rotenberg stressed that he had “no personal interest at stake with this proposal”. Rather, he had decided to take action because “it is all parents are talking about and I decided to do something about it”.
The announcement of plans to open a new school, he said, had galvanised strategic action to combat the crisis. It was just one option in a series of ideas to ensure that families are able to secure places in Jewish schools for their children.
Another possibility, he said, was getting Jewish secondary schools to expand their intake.
“In the interest of transparency, Rabbi Lister and I have been invited by Pajes to meet Jewish secondary school leaders later this month to discuss this suggestion,” Mr Rotenberg said. But he remained dubious: “JFS already has 10 forms; would it really expand further? And we know that local and national government policy does not favour expanding schools.”
Mr Rotenberg took the opportunity to acknowledge some parents’ reservations about opening a free school. Although there are already free Jewish primary schools, it would be the first secondary of its kind and would mean that 50 per cent of its places were available to non-Jewish families.
“To be clear, there is an issue to that, and we would need to look at it extraordinarily carefully,” he said. “But let me tell you – just because Yavneh and JFS have pupils who have filled out their CRP forms doesn’t mean they are all Jewish.
“If we believe that there is a need and there are no existing schools willing to expand – and we know that the local council will not support a new voluntary-aided school – we have a very stark choice: go down the free school route and understand the risk with our eyes wide open, or do nothing.”
He added that the school would be “financially and religiously sustainable, be mindful of the existing educational landscape and would provide the best Jewish and secular education”.
“We have a number of sites in sight,” he said. “We hope that if we build, you will come.”
Lilac Sky founder and director Trevor Averre-Beeson, who has also been enlisted to join the board of the Nekadma Trust, followed by telling attendees about the work of his organisation.
“We have set up 21 schools from scratch, and are currently contracted to work in 71 schools around the country,” he said. “For us, good is not good enough. Outstanding means there is no room for failure. Planning is the most important part and, with our expertise, Kedem High School will be outstanding from the get go.”
Finally, the audience heard from Rabbi Lister, who would act as the school’s principal. “I really care that every Jewish child has a place at a Jewish school if they want it,” he said. “The ethos of the school is all in its name – and I don’t mean ‘grape juice’. It means ‘moving forward’. This is what Jewish education’s survival is all about. I would like to be the principal of a school where any Jewish scholar of the past would recognise it as a proper, authentic, happy Jewish school.”
He added: “I would never lead a Jewish school without the Chief Rabbi’s blessing.” The Rosh Pinah principal later stressed that Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has not yet been consulted about the setting up of Kedem School and has not given it his approval.
The trio took questions from the audience, which covered concerns about the timescale of setting up a new school, about the ethos and vision in terms of gender equality, and whether it will be joining up with primary schools to act as feeder schools.
The bottom line, Mr Rotenberg said, was that “everything is still up for discussion”. He encouraged parents to submit their opinions on the proposal either online or by post, which they would then use to strengthen their application to the Department for Education.
One parent in the audience, Debbie Jackson, said she was “very excited” about the proposals.
“I live in Barnet, but currently schlep my child to Sinai,” she said. “There are clearly not enough places. It is a good thing that somebody is doing something – it is a coup.”
She added: “Secondary schools need more competition. At the moment, they are resting on their laurels.”
Hilla Moshenson, whose child also attends Sinai in Brent, agreed: “There should be more choice. There is no chance we will get into Yavneh, and we are determined to secure a place at a Jewish school. One of my friends has a child at a non-Jewish school who has been subject to antisemitism.”
Another parent, Shelley Taylor, said she had come to the event “out of frustration with the system”.
Ms Taylor’s son is in year four at Clore Shalom, so will just miss out on the school’s feeder school privilege if Yavneh College goes ahead with its plans to scrap the feeder system. “Without this new school, we have no other option,” she said. “There is a real need for it.”