The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - Miriam Sha­viv

THE SEARCH for a Jewish sec­ondary school for my oldest daugh­ter be­gan more than 18 months ago, when she started Year 5. We went to ev­ery open evening, lis­ten­ing care­fully to head­teach­ers’ speeches and dili­gently in­spect­ing sci­ence labs and English text­books. We booked day­time tours. We dis­cussed the op­tions with our daugh­ter’s pri­mary school teach­ers, and — end­lessly — with friends go­ing through the same process.

This year, we dragged our daugh­ter back to all the same schools for an­other open evening, hop­ing that a sec­ond (and some­times third) view­ing would help clar­ify the op­tions , be­cause by now we were thor­oughly con­fused. While all the schools seemed ex­cel­lent, there was no ob­vi­ous choice. Amongst our friends, JFS, Yavneh and JCoSS were per­ceived as es­sen­tially in­ter­change­able, de­spite the nom­i­nal de­nom­i­na­tional dif­fer­ences.

Even­tu­ally we ranked three schools in our or­der of pref­er­ence.

Last month the first round of of­fers came out. We re­ceived our third choice. For var­i­ous rea­sons, it wasn’t our favourite, al­though we will of course make it work for our daugh­ter, if no other of­fers ma­te­ri­alise. Some friends re­ceived their sixth choice – their “in­surance pol­icy” -– while oth­ers didn’t re­ceive a Jewish school at all. Has­monean is full of chil­dren who wanted JFS, JFS full of kids who pre­ferred JCoSS.

It fi­nally hit me. Our 18-month search had been a com­plete waste of time. You see, the sys­tem is set up to make par­ents think that they have a choice about sec­ondary schools. It’s an il­lu­sion.

If you live in north Lon­don, you re­ally only have two choices: in­tense Ortho­dox schools, or a large, sta­teof-the-art co-ed, serv­ing the gen­eral com­mu­nity.

Which­ever you pre­fer, ul­ti­mately the sys­tem makes the de­ci­sion for you. What you want is, too of­ten, ir­rel­e­vant. Our chil­dren de­serve bet­ter.

First, they need more types of schools to pick from. Our chil­dren have dif­fer­ent strengths, in­ter­ests and skills. Yet we send them all to a small num­ber of Jewish schools which seem broadly sim­i­lar in na­ture. The schools need to make more of an ef­fort to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves, whether through re­li­gious ethos, spe­cialisms or gen­eral char­ac­ter.

Choice is a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the 21st cen­tury. From our TV view­ing habits and the way we shop through to our work pat­terns and fam­ily life, we ex­pect to forge an in­di­vid­ual path. How can we set­tle for such lim­ited op­tions when it comes to our chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion?

Sec­ond of all, the choices we make need to count for more. The ad­mis­sions sys­tem is de­signed to be fair, but in re­al­ity it fails a large pro­por­tion of chil­dren, who are as­signed schools they do not re­ally want.

One so­lu­tion is cre­at­ing a new school, as the teams be­hind Barkai Col­lege and Ka­vanah Col­lege are ap­ply­ing to do. This is a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion op­por­tu­nity to pro­vide a gen­uinely dif­fer­ent op­tion. If the founders can de­velop a dis­tinc­tive vi­sion, they can trans­form the ed­u­ca­tional land­scape.

Ad­mit­tedly, un­der the cur­rent ad­mis­sions sys­tem, many chil­dren will still not re­ceive their first choice. How to fix that is be­yond the scope of this ar­ti­cle — and my knowl­edge. But it seems clear that part of the prob­lem is a short­age of school places. As long as de­mand ex­ceeds sup­ply, schools are guar­an­teed to be full and par­ents are grate­ful to be awarded a place any­where. If there was enough sup­ply, a more com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place would emerge.

No won­der ex­ist­ing schools are re­sis­tant. Both JFS and JCoSS have an­nounced bulge years in 2018, to stem de­mand for a new school. While these are a wel­come stop-gap mea­sure, they also stop what the sys­tem re­ally needs — va­ri­ety and choice.

Our 18month search had been a waste of time

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