The tragic and untimely death of Dena Coleman has spread shock waves through the Jewish education community. Nobody can quite believe that such a powerful and vibrant presence was taken so suddenly. This posting is not meant as an obituary (even writing the word in connection with Dena seems unreal) but rather as a personal reflection.
I think I first encountered Dena professionally when she was the Headteacher of Hasmonean, a post she took on in the teeth of opposition from the more conservative forces within the school. She soon showed that she was more than capable of not just running the school, but moving it dramatically forward. But it was as Head of Yavneh that I knew her best, and more recently, as a member of PaJeS' professional board. She was always willing to offer advice and support and her contributions to our discussions were hugely influential in shaping our agenda. On a personal level, she was always happy to act as a sounding board for ideas and she happily acted as a mentor to new Headteachers, who all benefited from her wisdom and thoughtful approach to problems. Above all, she was a Headteacher’s Headteacher, someone who carried the respect and affection of all her colleagues.
In June 2013, a group of anti faith school organisations launched another ‘Fair Admissions Campaign’, demanding that all state-funded schools should be open to all children, regardless of their parents’ religion.
Its press release claims that it is ‘widely supported’, but that seems to fly in the face of the very limited number and size of the groups who have formed the campaign. It looks to me to have very limited support, nor, indeed, can it.
And there’s an enormous paradox in the campaign’s central tenet: Why do so many parents want to send their children to faith based schools? Can they really want their children to grow up to be narrow and insular? Could it be that their deepest ambitions are to raise children who will have no acceptance of people of other faiths and none? Are they secretly yearning for a return to the Dark Ages? If that is really the case, it is hard to understand how perhaps one third of all schools in the UK, faith based as they are, remain so popular. In fact, faith based schools appear to be one of the growth industries of our time. More and more people want them, with even faith based free schools, where only 50% of the places may be reserved for those professing the faith, amongst the vanguard. It would appear that parents are prepared to go to great lengths to get their children admitted to faith based schools. This even applies to parents who are not themselves religious. You have to ask yourself why this should be?
This years Graduation programme at the LSJS heavily featured PaJeS supported programmes. Over 20 students have now graduated the PaJeS conceived partnership degree with Greenwich in Applied Professional Studies. Many of those are teachers who have now qualified and are benefiting as senior teachers in their respective schools. See below PaJeS Staff member Michael Pollak introducing Greenwich graduates to the ceremony.
Headteachers and Heads of Jewish Studies have all recently been taking part in a JPR research project about Israel education. Sponsored by the Pears Foundation, it is being coordinated by some of the excellent team at Makom and the session I was in was facilitated by Robbie Gringrass, ex of the Besht Tellers. For those of you who don’t recall, Besht Tellers was a Jewish theatre group and my own connection with them was that, in the very early days of my Headship at King Solomon High School, we offered them rehearsal space in return for some theatre work with students. It wasn’t a huge success, mostly because neither side really knew what to offer or expect, but the rooms they inhabited remained known as the Besht Tellers rooms long after they had departed. This year the old teaching block, the Besht Tellers rooms, were finally demolished and with it went the name. The memory of who they were and what they did had disappeared long ago, but for some twenty years everybody knew where the Besht Tellers room was, even if very few could remember its origins or why it had once seemed like such an exciting idea.
You can see where this is going, of course, especially if you’d been part of the Headteachers and assorted education ‘elder statespersons’ (trying to be diplomatic here) discussing how Israel meant something very specific to them/us but how ‘young people today’ didn’t really appreciate the history and deep meaning it held for previous generations.