Going back to our roots

Synagogue attendances are dropping, yet more and more Jewish parents are sending their children to single-faith schools.
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The Independent Online

Fiona Sharpe found it hard to decide whether to send her children to a Jewish school. She paced the floor and debated the issue by e-mail with friends in Israel and New York, "because while the children's Jewish education is important, they have to live and function in mainstream society and I was worried about anything that might limit their experience".

But in sending her seven-year-old son and his younger sister to The Torah Academy, a tiny private Jewish school in Brighton, she has joined a trend that has seen demand for Jewish schooling burgeon, even as the Jewish population of the United Kingdom dwindles.

While the number of UK Jews has shrunk by more than 25 per cent since the Fifties, the number of children attending Jewish day schools has grown by 500 per cent. More than 22,000 children are now in full-time Jewish schooling, nearly half of all Jewish pupils.

Half of all parents who send their children to Jewish day schools did not go to such a school themselves. New schools are being built in areas of rising Jewish population, and for the first time recently some Jewish primary school pupils in London have failed to get into their Jewish comprehensive of choice.

So why are growing numbers of Jewish parents opting for a religious school when synagogue attendances are dropping and half the children in Jewish schools come from non-Sabbath-observing homes? The question applies to Jewish as much as to non-Jewish families, who may profess an allegiance to the Church of England or may not. The popularity of what are called faith schools continues to rise, as the Government will acknowledge in its White Paper to be published in the autumn. Faith schools will be given a boost as a result.

For Fiona Sharpe, sending her children to a Jewish school was about combining high academic standards with Jewish traditions and culture. "In my age group, the 35 to 40s, we're very concerned with education, and the standard of Jewish schooling generally has risen," she says. "Also, with the breakdown of the extended family, there aren't grandparents to pass on the culture in the same way as there used to be, and with more and more parents working out of the home, Jewish education is becoming more important. It isn't so much a religious thing, but a question of getting a good sense of values, and the knowledge and information about Jewish culture."

According to a new report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the increasing demand is driven partly by demography and partly by geography. Strictly orthodox Jews have large families and new schools are opening in areas of growing Jewish populations, particularly in outer north London. Jewish schools also get better academic results than their state school equivalents. But much is to do with a grassroots desire by parents to give their children a sense of values and identity.

The UK's Jewish population has declined from 450,000 after the Second World War, to 280,000 today through emigration and low birth rates. And with one-in-three Jews now marrying non-Jews, fears of assimilation are driving some parents towards separate schools, says Oliver Valins, a research fellow at the Institute and one of the report's authors.

Helen Wiseman, head of Rosh Pinar Jewish Primary School in Edgware, argues that the social life is attractive, too. "Jewish parents are keen for their children to do well, but there's no doubt they also like the friendships and mixing and parties."

Then there is the moral framework. "Everything we do from the prayers in the morning, to how children conduct themselves, promotes the values of Jewish traditions. And with society so threatening and volatile, and with all the peer pressures on children, parents are right to want to give their children some certainties."

Jewish schools vary from the strictly orthodox to the liberal, and can be voluntary-aided or independent, although funds for building new schools come from within the Jewish community.

Clore Shalom Jewish Primary School, a voluntary-aided school in Hertfordshire, opened two years ago with backing from the Clore Duffield Foundation. It is already turning away as many children as it takes, even though it is only three miles away from another new, oversubscribed Jewish primary school. Irene Kaye, the school's head, says parents see it "in terms of inheritance. They want them to look at the world through Jewish eyes. But when they come to us we make the point that we are a religious school".

Yet only a few years back, this was exactly what many Jewish parents turned their back on. Alistair Falk, head of King Solomon High School, a city technology college in Barkingside, which opened in 1993, says that 20 years ago most Jewish parents in his area said no thanks to using a Jewish school. Now 75 per cent of them use his school, the highest percentage in any Jewish community. "We are a classic example of incredible growth."

His is also an incredible success story. From an all-ability intake – "our parents are cab drivers and hairdressers, they don't have higher education, this isn't a typical Jewish community" – 73 per cent of students achieve five GCSEs A to Cs, the highest "added value" of any such college, according to the Technology Colleges Trust.

Jewish schools are not without problems, however. The new report highlights inadequate IT and sports facilities in some schools, and concerns over provision for pupils with special educational needs.

Not all Jewish parents are comfortable with the notion of separatism. Fiona Sharpe knows that going to a mainstream primary school helped her son re-integrate to England when they returned from living abroad. But she thinks her children will go to mainstream secondary schools. "I have no intention of moving back to London just to put my children in a Jewish school," she says.

One north London parent, who sent her first daughter to the Jewish Free School in Camden, opted for a girls' independent school for her second. "We'd moved down from Liverpool where there is a dwindling Jewish population and only 40 per cent of kids at the high school were Jewish, so you could, as it were, have the best of both worlds. In London it was 100 per cent, and we felt there was a real danger of Jewish kids never mixing with non-Jewish kids and vice versa."

The Future of Jewish Schooling in the United Kingdom. Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 79 Wimpole Street, London W1M 7DD (www.jpr.org.uk)