Where have all the Jewish primary school headteachers gone?

By Robert LEACH, Headteacher, Michael Sobell Sinai School.

Richard Leach

Robert Leach.

Where have all the Jewish primary school headteachers gone? As the headteacher at Britain’s largest Jewish primary, it saddens me to say that we are facing a silent crisis in Jewish education.

There are currently six Jewish primaries in the UK without a substantive head running their schools.

Where are all the leaders? The headteacher is the leader of the school. They establish – or at least are responsible for implementing the vision of the governing body.

Without a headteacher, there is no vision, which reminds me of the following paragraph: “As the leader, so the generation; as the generation, sothe leader” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Arachim 17a).

If our schools don’t have strong leaders, it is the generation we teach that suffers. The recruitment and retention of good quality staff is a key challenge for any school leader and the recruitment of leaders themselves is possibly the most important issue for schools and their governing bodies

This challenge is not restricted to the Jewish education sector. Across the country, all faith schools face these particular difficulties.

In Leadership and Faith Schools: Issues and Challenges, published by the National College for School Leadership in 2012, it says: “Re-advertisement rates for headteacher vacancies were markedly higher in Church of England and Catholic schools than their maintained counterparts (42 percent and 51 percent respectively, compared with 38 percent for all primary schools and 24 percent for all secondary schools for the same period).”

Faith schools face more difficulties and dilemmas than other schools when recruiting leaders. The governing body has to determine how important it is the successful candidate is a practising member of their faith, measured and balanced against the skills and quality of the applicant.

On one hand, the ethos and ‘vision’ of the school often are significantly influenced by the head’s beliefs and ideally should reflect the school’s ethos. On the other , restricting the pool to just the Jewish community risks limiting the quality and experience of the staff.

The difficulty facing these schools in finding adequately experienced and qualified leaders is further compounded by the recent proliferation of new Jewish primary schools. Schools seem to pop up every term, but there seems to be very little regard for the drain this places on an already shallow pool of leadership.

In the past two years alone, four new schools were opened – all within a two-mile radius of existing Jewish schools. There seems to be no organisation or body taking responsibility for managing and overseeing this expansion. Moreover, there seems to be only negligible differences in the espoused philosophies of these new schools versus the established schools.

It thus beggars the question: did we need it? The recent report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on Jews in the UK acknowledges that the demand for Jewish schools among the non-Orthodox is shrinking year-on-year, yet the trend of opening new schools seems unabated.

Aside from the dilution of philanthropic community funds available to existing educational establishments (a grave concern in itself), the replication of experienced leadership in new schools is adversely affecting the ability of existing ones to continue providing a quality education.

It’s a very real issue for these six schools currently without the guidance or leadership of a permanent head.

The new government, with its savage cuts to the education sector, has drastically reduced then influence and support of the local authorities for schools.

The only viable solution is for Jewish schools to work together and pool their resources, funding and skills to identify, nurture and develop aspiring and future leaders.

Jewish primary schools must put to one side the subtle differences in their placement along the religious spectrum and unite under powerful collective to ensure the void in succession planning for the future leaders of our schools is filled.

Who is responsible for protecting the future leadership of our Jewish schools and of our children’s education? We are.