You are no doubt familiar with the Jacobean comedy by Thomas Middleton, ‘It’s a Mad World, my Masters’, where a dashing but impecunious bachelor in need of some ready cash has to live on his wits. No? You should try to catch a revival. What brought this phrase to mind was reading a number of statements by both the main political parties in the last couple of weeks, which brought me up short in my tracks.
Let’s just give them some thought.
Michael Gove announced recently that a future Conservative government would help state schools - just like independent schools - to offer a school day nine or ten hours long. That extra time ‘would provide a safe, supervised place to do homework - and in particular, ensure everyone masters the core academic subjects - maths, English, sciences, languages, history and geography subjects that wealthier families have always encouraged their children into - and that our competitors like Germany and Poland now mandate for all children to at least 16.’
And at the same time, he claimed, it would help all children build character, confidence and resilience. It would provide time for debating, cadets, orchestras, drama, volunteering, getting ready for the world of work - things that nurture rounded young people.’ And here’s the best bit……'for parents who want to work, an extended school day makes balancing work and care much easier'. So from now on, we can safely assume, schools will only employ the unmarried or those who are without children. After all, teachers who are parents too will face the prospect of being both the problem AND the solution.
Regrettably, the Anglo Jewish community does not have a good track record in responding effectively at times of challenge for Jewish education. In his excellent book "Jewish Education in England 1944-1988, between integration and separation" David S Mendelsson charts the community's failings. From an attempt in 1941 by lay leaders of the United Synagogue and the Reform and Liberal movements to establish a community wide framework for Jewish education during the wartime emergency, to a failed attempt in the 1970s to unite the London Board for Jewish Religious Education and the Zionist Federation Education Trust, to more recent examples, Mendelssohn plots the inability of the community to establish cross communal consensus on vital support for our educational endeavours.
PaJeS, Partnerships for Jewish Schools, was established in response to the 2008 Commission on Jewish Schools, the first exercise in strategic planning by the Jewish Leadership Council. The commission was itself a timely strategic response to "the anticipated supply and demand imbalance in Jewish schools in London". From the development of the "Find a Jewish School" website, to the collection of sibling data to inform school planning, the provision of a network for special needs specialists and new training courses to meet the recruitment needs of the expanding sector, PaJeS has made impressive progress in establishing itself as an organisation with potential to succeed where previous attempts failed.
If we are to rise to the present challenges, clearly articulated in the aims of the organisation we all need to get behind PaJeS; funders must invest in it and the educational establishment must embrace it as our service organisation.
You cannot say that Michael Gove has let the grass grow under his feet. Indeed, I cannot think of a previous Secretary for Education who has done so much in such a short space of time, save for Rab Butler in 1944. The education world in England today (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different systems) is so changed from that of less than four years ago, that the phrase ‘breakneck speed’ could be applied to it. Which brings us to the case of the converter academies.
Now, for many of us, the academy conversion debate is similar to the Schleswig Holstein Question, about which Lord Palmerston is alleged to have said: “Only three people...have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.” Whilst several Jewish secondary schools have gone through the academy conversion process and others are waiting their turn, the situation facing primary schools is somewhat different. Schools such as the Independent Jewish Day School converted in the very first wave, a few years back, and have coped exceedingly well, but for others, facing the prospect of less and less Local Authority (LA) support, as their education departments are being shrunk or disbanded under government funding pressures, there are real dilemmas. You see, it is not just a matter of Governing Bodies waking up one day and saying to themselves, “academy conversion? That sounds a good idea. We’ll have some of that”. Governors will have to understand that there are several types of conversion models available: Stand alone, Multi Academy trust (MAT) and Umbrella Trust (UT). To my untutored eyes, the only differences that I can see between what freedoms Voluntary Aided schools have at present and Converter Academies are being offered are freedom from the National Curriculum and a chunk of extra funding from Mr Gove, which used to be ‘top sliced’ and given to LAs to provide support services. Now the National Curriculum has just been slimmed / diluted/ shrunk (choose your own verb) and all schools will still have to sit pupils for the Key Stage 2 SATs: so no full freedom there, then. Not only that, but schools will still have to buy in some services (training, support, advice etc) from somewhere, unless they think they can ‘go it alone’.