Forming a Jewish Network of Schools: A Future Learning Environment for Pupils, Teachers and Robots

Kirsten Jowett, Alan Capper

On the first day of Chanukah 5779, representatives of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom will sign the legal documentation that gives life to the Jewish Community Academy Trust (JCAT), the first Jewish network of schools for the UK’s mainstream Orthodox community. The group will even share some educational resources, a single back office and one board of trustees.

JCAT is designed to address some of the challenges that affect a group of Jewish schools in Britain that cater to a large and highly diverse student population. It also seeks to consider some of the challenges that schools are likely to face over the next five to ten years, most especially in relation to educational technology.

The Jewish school system in the UK is very different from the way such schools exist in the United States. Although there are a small number of private sector schools, the majority operate within the public sector. Secular studies are financed by the government, and parents pay a voluntary supplement that covers Jewish studies and the additional costs of security guards and secure premises. Secular studies in the public sector Jewish schools receive managerial and technical support from their local authority, which is similar to the US school district.

JCAT removes schools from the supervision of the local authority and places them in the equivalent of a US charter management organization (CMO). Over time, many other Jewish schools will be encouraged to join JCAT, and it will become one of the largest providers of Jewish education in the world.

Jewish Unity and Diversity

JCAT is open to schools that operate under the religious authority of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and are therefore connected to a group of more than 60 Orthodox shuls, called the United Synagogue. The United Synagogue is the synagogue organization in the UK with the largest membership. Children come from a spectrum of religious backgrounds, from Modern Orthodox to non-observant. Some attend shuls affiliated with other denominations; some are not members of any synagogue.

This diversity presents a challenge for Jewish studies. JCAT is therefore examining how to develop, evaluate and assess a framework in which a variety of different learning activities might be applied in different schools to engage children with Jewish values, Jewish education and Israel. There will not be a standardized or centralized approach, which would be both insensitive and inappropriate. JCAT plans to seek input from rabbis, educators and sociologists in the UK, US, Israel and elsewhere to engage this diverse group. 

The UK Jewish schools exist within a heavily regulated national system of education; while this has been very effective at ensuring certain minimum standards, it can stifle creativity and innovation. Indeed, the PISA rankings of global education show that some of the best educational outcomes in the world are achieved elsewhere in Europe. JCAT will try to identify where best practice lies overseas and whether this should be replicated.

Financial Savings

JCAT will also achieve financial economies of scale. While it will always be necessary to maintain some back office staff in each individual school, there is scope for centralization. Selling this service to other schools or networks in London could also serve as an additional source of revenue. While such partnerships already exist in the UK, they are not widespread.

Professional Development

One of the most significant challenges faced by all schools in the UK is the shortage of teachers in many subjects, particularly math. Many teachers leave the field after a brief career, limiting the pool of experienced educators. In order to improve staff retention, JCAT will work to ensure that employees have the best possible working environment.

The focus will be on two areas. First, a larger organization creates career paths and opportunities that are not available within a group of uncoordinated smaller schools. This is especially important for teachers of subjects like art and music and for teachers of students with special needs. While small schools might not be able to afford specialists in these areas, a consortium of schools could share the cost.

Second, professional learning can be more effective when there is a management structure to ensure that new skills can be effectively propagated around an organization. Individual schools may have quality teachers, but their small management teams leave limited capacity to diffuse or retain their knowledge. This can be more effectively achieved through centralized leadership. JCAT will therefore serve as a professional learning network (PLN) for teachers. While there are already virtual PLNs that support teacher collaboration across different schools, JCAT will have the ability to maintain a robust package of professional learning within a Jewish environment.

Educational Technology

There will be significant changes to classroom practice over the coming years, and these partly arise from developments in artificial intelligence and the future role that robots will play in the learning process. This important development is likely to have two impacts. First, there is the possibility that cobots (robots that operate in collaboration with humans and share the same workspace) will enhance teacher productivity. There are already examples of this overseas, most especially in pre-K, where the learners, who are especially likely to anthropomorphize, appreciate the experience of a cat-sized cobot reading them stories. The second impact is that new technology will greatly enhance the personalized learning that takes place either inside or outside of school. This will support additional differentiation and have a very meaningful impact on children with learning difficulties.

It is also relevant for a Jewish studies curriculum. It is essential to engage students by reaching out to their skill sets, preferred methods of learning and interests. Future developments in the technology of personalized learning will enable us to provide an experience for Jewish education that is tailored to each child’s specific requirements.

However, these new technologies may be difficult to introduce. Many day schools have limited experience of engaging in the long-term capital expenditures that are central to deployment of technology. IT is also a very specialized area, and a school network is more likely to be able to employ the staff needed to bring EdTech effectively into the classroom. There are also enormous economies of scale associated with technological infrastructure, which thrives upon standardization, so large buyers will be able to operate with significantly lower costs.

Schools need to be prepared for these developments well in advance. Artificial intelligence, like human intelligence, reacts to its circumstances. Robots are being trained to respond to human feedback. Those schools that participate in beta testing will provide a learning environment for robots, which will then be most adapted to their circumstances. Jewish schools have specific requirements that apply to how they teach and what they teach. We need to embrace this technology at an early stage if our needs are to be accommodated. Many non-Jewish schools have already accomplished this; there is even a charter school that lets EdTech companies operate from its premises.

Learning from other school networks

There are already a large number of school networks operating across both the US and the UK. They operate in both private and public sectors and typically aim to provide better educational outcomes through specialization. One approach is to address a particular pupil category, such as KIPP, where 95% of students are African American or Latino. At Oasis Community Learning in the UK, 48% of children are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 31% speak English as an additional language. FlexSchool operates in the Northeast, supporting “gifted and twice exceptional students.” Other CMOs have a specific educational vision, such as AltSchool, which is focused upon technological solutions for personalized learning. Some link a specific vision to a particular subset of children.

These networks do, in general, produce better educational outcomes, as demonstrated by research from Stanford University in the US and by the UK Department for Education. Study of the academic research and the experience of other networks shapes the strategic approach to the development of JCAT.

Historical context

Building a network of Jewish schools has been a challenging process, but it is not without historical precedent. In 1867, the then chief rabbi encouraged three synagogues in the City of London to form the United Synagogue, and the process took three years. Today, Chief Rabbi Mirvis states, “‘Rabbi’ means ‘teacher,’ and I see the role of chief rabbi as chief teacher.” With his support, we will have created JCAT in a shorter time.

The United Synagogue will soon be 150 years old. Much has changed in Anglo-Jewry since its inception, including absorption of immigrants from Eastern Europe, two world wars and fundamental changes in the way that society views religion. However, the organization remains at the heart of the mainstream Jewish community. One of its successes, and a key point of discussion for JCAT trustees, is to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between efficiencies that are derived from centralization and adapting to local needs. Any form of school collaboration would need to consider what is appropriate, how to achieve this and when change might be desirable.

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HaYidion Catalyzing Resources Fall 2018
Catalyzing Resources
Fall 2018