Mountainloving new head has high aims for King Solomon
HANNELE REECE, the new head of Kantor King Solomon High School in Redbridge, might never have been where she is now but for a sporting accident.
She was playing for her university, East Anglia, in a korfball match in Europe — “a weird cross between basketball and netball” — when “I went left and my knee went right”. As she recuperated, she reconsidered the military career she had been planning.
Her father suggested teaching, “so I did and I have never looked back”.
Although this is her first term as permanent head, she was in charge almost the whole of last year after the then head Matthew Slater went on unexplained personal leave, parting company with King Solomon in May. The school has had to weather a period of turbulence since the forced departure of a previous head, Jo Shuter, in 2014.
But the one thing Ms Reece, 40, can bring is continuity. When she accepted a history post at King Solomon 19 years ago, six years after its opening, it was her first job. She has risen through the ranks: head of humanities, assistant head, deputy head. She says she has been lucky that each time she sought to broaden her experience, a role came up for her at the school.
Despite the challenges of last year, she says, KKSHS wasn’t as affected as much as it might have been. “The senior team have been very consistent and are absolutely devoted and committed. Fundamentally, our staff care about the kids. You focus on the kids in front of you and you try to ignore whatever is going on outside.”
Her fierce loyalty to the school is obvious. “We’ve seen a lot of change but I would argue that in many ways we haven’t changed.
“Superficially, 20 years ago people would see we were a small, basically midde-class, white, Jewish school. Superficially, people would look at us now and say we obviously have a different intake. But in terms of the feeling from the student body and the staff, not much has changed.
“The students are tremendously inclusive and tolerant. Students who may find it difficult in other places are welcomed here. We have a large number of staff who have been here perhaps not as long as I have, but not far off. That means that although there has been a lot of change, a lot of the best aspects of us have stayed.”
Jewish children now comprise around 30 per cent of the pupil body, with Muslim students, at around 25 to 30 per cent , the largest of the other faith groups. “I believe we are an excellent model because we have relatively few issues between students of different backgrounds and if we can roll that out, to the high street, to London, to the UK, we’d be doing very well as a society.”
But she is clear that King Solomon remains in ethos an Orthodox Jewish school. Every child, regardless of their faith, takes Jewish studies GCSE and it is one of the top subjects in terms of results. The annual Poland visit and biennial tour to Israel, while mostly taken up by the Jewish students, are open to all. “I think Israel has a lot to offer everybody because it is such a mixed community,” she says.
“When I meet parents of new students, I always talk about the three things we are built on — and they are those Jewish values of learning, charity and community.” She has already taken steps to strengthen Jewish education at King Solomon, employing three additional staff in the Jewish studies and kehillah (community) departments. A new programme on Jewish text study is intended to engage the academically most able Jewish students. A second initiative is a summer trip to Israel for school leavers in order to prepare them for university. She is also keen to
The senior team are committed and devoted’
increase ties with local rabbis, synagogues and Jewish institutions “so we can genuinely touch as many Jewish families as we can.
“One of the things that has been lost over the last three or four years has been that connection with the local shuls. I think a lot of them don’t really have an understanding of who we are or what we do.”
From South Manchester originally, she is from a long line of Salvation Army officers — her parents, their parents and their parents before them. While she has “moved away” from the religious aspect, “the grounding it gives you in the importance of looking after others, of charity, of making the right decisions, that stays with you.” When she’s been with King Solomon to Israel, “it was like going through my Sunday school stories”.
She is aware that the school’s mixedfaith intake has put off some Jewish families but “the thing I always say is if the Jewish community wants a Jewish school, they have to send their children to us”.
And the way to attract more, she believes, is to provide an “outstanding education as well as the Jewish education”. If the school can continue improvements in GCSE and A-level results in recent years, she believes, it will become “the natural choice”.
She hopes to build on the school’s good Ofsted in 2016 to make it a good school with outstanding features at the next inspection and in five years, an outstanding school. The positive message from the last Ofsted is getting out, she says, “This is the first year we have had a waiting list.”
One way to nudge up the academic performance tables would be to limit the exams taken by less academically able students — a ploy she regards as “just morally wrong. We are a religious school and we therefore have an obligation to do what is morally right. To do what is right is whatever gives our students the greatest chances of life success.”
Vocationally-oriented courses are being expanded in subjects such as PE, digital photography and business studies to ensure a broader choice for all. The more academic A-level in PE may be fine for a future physiotherapist, for example, but if you are aiming for a coaching job, a more vocational course might be better.
“Three years ago we were in the ludicrous position that students could do very well in GCSE relative to their ability but then we had nothing for them,” she says.
But while students overall make good educational progress, sometimes the most vulnerable students don’t do as well as they might — “and that’s not good enough”.
She has appointed one of the school’s most experienced staff, Naomi Carmel-Brown, to the new post of head of inclusion, to oversee additional support for those who need it.
“If you are born in the wrong part of Redbridge, you face significant barriers,” she says. “Thirty per cent of our students are in receipt of free school meals. Those students, when they are in school, need extra support and protection to mitigate the difficulties their circumstances have brought them.”
She was a popular choice as head. The messages of support from parents and former pupils on the school’s Facebook were “really gratifying”, and on the last day of term, as pupils came to see her, she says, “I don’t know how I got out of my office door.”
Most of the summer she spent planning for the year ahead — save for a twoweek break when she and her husband went to the French Alps. Last year the headteacher who “loves mountains” ascended Kilimanjaro — “it was a personal ambition I finally fulfilled. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done.”
This is the first year we have had a waiting list’
GCSE collectors at King Solomon High School