Letter from London: A Welcome from the Jewish Community Secondary School

It is too early to know quite what impact this huge investment will have on the overall numbers, but there is little doubt it has galvanised the community and re-engaged many Jews, as well as producing thousands of young, self-confident Jewish high school graduates. Many of the schools have established enviable academic reputations and the vast majority are oversubscribed. Furthermore, in parts of the country, such as Liverpool and Birmingham, where the Jewish population is insufficient to fill the available places, the schools have become first choices for non-Jewish parents, especially amongst Muslims, creating a vibrant mix.

Extending choice in Jewish education

Yet, until now, one vital ingredient has been missing in the growing range of choices available to Jewish parents: every one of the UK’s Jewish secondary schools (11-18 year olds) has been administered under the auspices of mainstream Orthodoxy. This has meant that the Jewish Studies curriculum is taught only from an Orthodox perspective and pupils do not learn about faiths other than Judaism. Children whose mothers have converted to Judaism through any synagogue movement other than Orthodox are not admitted as equals. And the religious authorities of these schools have even been known to reject conversions through the Israeli Orthodox movement.

Masorti, Reform, and Liberal parents (the three non-Orthodox Jewish movements in the UK), who together make up around 35% of our community, have been forced to chose between a Jewish education for their children which excludes progressive traditions from their curriculum, or a non-Jewish education altogether.

Now all that is set to change, with the launch—in September 2010—of the UK’s first cross-communal Jewish state secondary school, JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School).

Growing numbers

Already, there are three cross-communal Jewish elementary schools in Britain, for children from 5-11 years old, attracting a total of more than a thousand children, drawn from traditions from secular to Orthodox. Each of the schools offers an inclusive curriculum and maintains a pluralistic ethos that would be immediately recognisable to any RAVSAK member. And each is significantly oversubscribed, despite increasing competition from other faith and non-faith schools, demonstrating a clear demand from parents for this type of education.

Yet, when the children have graduated from these schools, their parents have faced a stark choice: an Orthodox secondary school or a non-faith school unable to continue the educational process begun in those junior years.

Pluralist pioneers

But not for much longer. In 2001, a small group of determined parents set out to create the UK’s first inclusive Jewish secondary school. Driven in most cases by a desire to create a school with an open and inclusive ethos for their own children, it soon became clear that the scale of the project would mean that the school could not open in time for their own children to benefit from it. The group was determined that the school be a state-funded secondary school, which inevitably slowed down the process of development. Nevertheless, seven years later they have secured support from across the community, a local authority site with planning permission (far from straightforward under UK law), and more than £36 million ($60 million) in state funding. JCoSS is also well on the way to raising the £10 million target for fundraising from the community. JCoSS is set to open its doors in September 2010.

How did it happen?

Having established the vision, the JCoSS parents’ first challenge was to identify a site, an extremely challenging task. Land is scarce in the UK and especially in the two or three North London boroughs with sufficient concentrations of Jews to support such a school. Where land does become available it is usually snapped up for commercial development, making it far too expensive to purchase for educational purposes, and where—for some reason or other—it is not suitable for commercial use, there are huge demands from competing non-commercial uses.

Eventually, however, the JCoSS parents found a perfect site in the borough of Barnet. It already housed part of a school, which was in dilapidated condition. The governors (board members) of that school were keen to merge and rebuild their two buildings, freeing up the site for JCoSS, if only the money could be found to make it happen. Lobbying of the Schools Minister by JCoSS received an extremely sympathetic hearing, and a way was found to fund the two projects in tandem, subject to JCoSS’s parents being able to prove demand.

This JCoSS was able to do with relative ease. Independent market research was commissioned among parents from across the Jewish community which showed overwhelming support for the project, and this was reinforced by the increasing demand for places at the existing Jewish cross-communal primary schools. Indeed, these schools are growing to such an extent that, by the time JCoSS opens, their graduates alone will fill five of the new school’s six classes of entry. Already, three years to go, the parents of almost 180 children eligible to attend the school in its first year of opening have registered an interest in attending, enough to fill the school to capacity on day one.

Reaching out

With the demand proven, the government came up with the funding, and the community establishment came on board. Gerald Ronson, the community’s leading philanthropist and a hugely successful property developer, agreed to support the school financially from his family trust and, still more importantly, agreed to head up the design and build phase of the project. Ronson, a member of the mainstream Orthodox community, regards JCoSS as hugely important in complementing existing Orthodox provision. As he writes in the school’s brochure: “What better way to reach out to those who might otherwise be lost to Judaism than through education and through their children?”

A chair of governors (board president) has been appointed, and other governors are now being sought to provide expertise in education, marketing, recruitment, and all the other skills required to deliver a project on this scale. They will then turn their attention to finding an inspirational head teacher and start work on detailed curriculum planning.

Volunteer to help

And that’s where RAVSAK comes in. Over the coming months, we look forward to calling on the help and advice of the network to draw on the huge experience which you have to offer. JCoSS represents an important outpost of the RAVSAK approach and we thank you in advance for your support. ♦

To find out more about JCoSS and to volunteer to support the project, please visit our website at www.jcoss.org.

Michael Phillips is Chair of the JCoSS Trust. He can be reached at webinfo@jcoss.org.
Michael Phillips
The Arts in Jewish Education
Published: Summer 2008