We need to think be­yond schools

The Jewish Chronicle - - EDUCATION - MATT PLEN Matt Plen is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Masorti Ju­daism

FULL DIS­CLO­SURE: I’m the par­ent of an 11-year old who, de­spite ap­ply­ing to two Jewish sec­on­daries, has been al­lo­cated a place at a lo­cal non-Jewish state school. Many of my friends in the same po­si­tion are bang­ing on ta­bles for an ex­pan­sion of Jewish school places.

But de­spite be­ing a staunch sup­porter of Jewish ed­u­ca­tion (I’ve worked in the field for over 20 years and was a found­ing gov­er­nor of a Jewish free school), I’m in two minds. I be­lieve we need much more clar­ity on why Jewish schools are im­por­tant, what we want them to achieve and what we need to do as a com­mu­nity to en­sure these re­sults are de­liv­ered.

The re­cent rapid ex­pan­sion of main­stream Jewish school­ing is partly down to fac­tors that have noth­ing to do with Jewish ed­u­ca­tion: ris­ing an­ti­semitism, govern­ment poli­cies such as the free schools pro­gramme and the in­creas­ing cost of pri­vate schools. A tip­ping-point fac­tor is also at play; what­ever their feel­ings about Jewish ed­u­ca­tion, very few par­ents are will­ing to send their chil­dren to a school with hardly any other Jews.

None­the­less, the ex­pan­sion of Jewish schools does rep­re­sent a con­scious strat­egy. The Jewish Lead­er­ship Coun­cil’s web­site claims that the ex­pan­sion in Jewish school­ing “means that our schools play an es­sen­tial part in in­flu­enc­ing the next gen­er­a­tion’s Jewish iden­tity” and that by help­ing these schools shape their strate­gic fu­ture, we can “strengthen Jewish life in the UK”. These claims match a 2013 stu­dent sur­vey in which 80 per cent of re­spon­dents agreed that Jewish schools strengthen Jewish iden­tity.

The prob­lem is, there is very lit­tle ev­i­dence to back up these claims. A 2014 study by JPR found that “whilst Jewish ed­u­ca­tion does have a col­lec­tive, in­de­pen­dent im­pact on Jewish iden­tity, this im­pact is com­par­a­tively weak; in­deed, we found that the im­pact of Jewish ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes com­bined was six times weaker than the im­pact of Jewish up­bring­ing on most as­pects of Jewish iden­tity”. When com­par­ing Jewish school­ing with other ed­u­ca­tional in­ter­ven­tions (for ex­am­ple, sum­mer camps and Is­rael gap years), JPR found that it has “no mea­sur­able im­pact” on most di­men­sions of Jewish iden­tity.

Anec­do­tal ev­i­dence sug­gests that Jewish school­ing of­ten com­petes with other forms of com­mu­nal in­volve­ment. Chil­dren in Jewish schools rarely at­tend cheder and this of­ten weak­ens their con­nec­tion with the com­mu­nity. Sy­n­a­gogue lead­ers tell me that when chil­dren start Jewish schools, their fam­i­lies of­ten stop com­ing to shul.

This is a prob­lem be­cause even the best schools can’t do ev­ery­thing; an oblig­a­tory, as­sess­ment-based frame­work can’t hope to gen­er­ate the kind of vol­un­tary com­mit­ment on which mod­ern Jewish iden­tity de­pends. And if fam­ily up­bring­ing is the most im­por­tant fac­tor shap­ing Jewish com­mit­ment, then the im­pli­ca­tions of weak­en­ing fam­ily in­volve­ment in Jewish life are clear.

The hope might be that if schools can’t strengthen Jewish iden­tity, at least they can per­form the vi­tal role of teach­ing Jewish knowl­edge and skills. But while most Jewish schools ex­cel aca­dem­i­cally, Jewish stud­ies and par­tic­u­larly He­brew are of­ten the weak­est ar­eas of the cur­ricu­lum. Even schools which are strongly com­mit­ted to Jewish ed­u­ca­tion find it hard to re­cruit suit­ably qual­i­fied staff.

The vast ma­jor­ity of main­stream Jewish school grad­u­ates are still un­able to speak He­brew or to un­der­stand ba­sic Jewish texts in the orig­i­nal lan­guage – two ba­sic mark­ers of a tra­di­tional Jewish ed­u­ca­tion.

So what needs to be done? First, we should recog­nise that Jewish school­ing is not a panacea and the ex­pan­sion of Jewish schools will not save the com­mu­nity. Schools are in­sti­tu­tions de­signed to de­velop knowl­edge and skills. This should be their fo­cus. If we want our schools to pro­duce grad­u­ates with a high level of Jewish lit­er­acy, we need to in­vest in teacher train­ing.

I pro­pose a fel­low­ship for newly qual­i­fied teach­ers, who would re­ceive a year of in­ten­sive He­brew and Jewish ed­u­ca­tion in Is­rael at an in­sti­tu­tion of their choice in re­turn for a three-year com­mit­ment to work­ing in Jewish ed­u­ca­tion in the UK. This kind of ini­tia­tive could trans­form our ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem.

Next, we need to clar­ify what pro­grammes Jewish schools should be of­fer­ing and what might be more ef­fec­tive in an­other set­ting. Should schools be of­fer­ing bar/bat-mitz­vah pro­grammes and Is­rael trips, or would we bet­ter off if they chan­nelled stu­dents into pro­grammes run by lo­cal syn­a­gogues and youth move­ments, in­sti­tu­tions which spe­cialise in sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ty­build­ing?

Fi­nally, the ab­sence of Jewish chil­dren in non-Jewish schools plus the thin­ning out of com­mu­nity-based ed­u­ca­tional op­tions due to lack of de­mand ac­tu­ally nar­rows the choices avail­able to par­ents. The com­mu­nity needs to in­vest in high-level sy­n­a­gogue pro­grammes, youth move­ments and sum­mer camps to guar­an­tee a so­lu­tion for those par­ents who want to com­bine a mean­ing­ful Jewish ed­u­ca­tion with the ben­e­fits of mul­ti­cul­tural school­ing. Which com­mu­nal agency will take up this strate­gic chal­lenge?

Ex­pand­ing Jewish schools will not save the com­mu­nity’ Fam­ily up­bring­ing is the most im­por­tant fac­tor’

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