How we’ve raised standards in Jewish studies for 20 years

20th January 2016

Jeffrey_Leader_300pxIt’s open evening and parents are flooding through the school gates to see their children’s class teachers. You have no classroom so you sit in the hall and wait patiently hoping that someone, anyone, will come and ask you how their child is ‘doing’ in Jewish Studies.

This was the reality 20 years ago in many Jewish schools where Jewish Studies languished far behind its secular counterpart. It’s not that parents didn’t care about their children’s Jewish education but the social mix and the quality of secular education were often the determining factors in choosing a school for their children. 

There was low morale at the time among many Jewish Studies teachers. Their departments were mainly staffed by unqualified practitioners – steeped in Jewish knowledge but often lacking the skills to impart that knowledge in a way that would have a positive impact upon their young learners. The lack of a teaching qualification also meant that career advancement in Jewish education was severely limited.

Today the picture is very different. Many schools are staffed by well qualified Jewish Studies teachers many of whom occupy senior leadership roles including headship and deputy headship.

So why the change?

Ofsted’s creation in 1992 subjected all maintained schools to the scrutiny of regular inspection. At first, religious education in faith schools was exempt from regular inspection but the Education (Schools) Act 1992 required inspectors to report ‘on the quality of the denominational education provided by the school’. This requirement led directly to the creation of Pikuach, the UK’s only government accredited, Jewish inspection service.

Pikuach (‘inspection’ in Hebrew) was the brainchild of Laurie Rosenberg, the then Education Officer of the Board of Deputies. He could see that the creation of a Jewish inspection service would help to raise the status of Jewish education. Jewish Studies teachers would now be judged, like their secular colleagues, on their ability to plan, teach and assess the progress of their pupils. The UJIA joined in supporting this exciting initiative but today, Pikuach is supported solely by its founding body – the Board of Deputies.

Since its first inspection in February 1996 Pikuach has carried out almost 200 inspections. Its 30 inspectors are all highly experienced, education professionals three quarters of whom are or have been headteachers or deputy headteachers of Jewish day schools.

The task of inspecting Jewish schools is not easy. There are no national Jewish standards and Pikuach inspectors have to judge each school across the religious spectrum according to its own aims and objectives. Unlike their Ofsted colleagues, Pikuach inspectors cannot disappear after an inspection. The Jewish educational community is a small one and there is no place to hide for an inspector who has given a school a less than favourable report.

At a national level Pikuach is doing crucial work. It works closely with Ofsted and other faith providers to ensure that demands on our schools are not excessive and makes the government aware that our schools are not only shaping the future of the British-Jewish community but are also contributing to the development of young Jews who, like their predecessors, have so much to offer British society in general.

We are particularly proud of our inter-faith work. For the past three years we have trained Sikh inspectors alongside their Jewish colleagues.

On January 14 Pikuach will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. Although we have achieved much in helping to raise standards there is still more to do. Jewish literacy, for example, is still a cause for concern. Recent research has shown that many children are leaving a lifetime in Jewish education unable to read Hebrew fluently. Our Inspection Handbook, based on the Ofsted model, is too regulatory. We observe and make judgements on teaching quality, leadership and management, curriculum development and pupil achievement but we also need to focus not only on what pupils know but also on what they think about their Jewish education. What impact is it making on their lives? A knowledgeable Jew is not necessarily a committed Jew.

Consequently, Pikuach will be spending more time talking to pupils. It will examine the role of informal education in shaping Jewish identity and will be taking a closer look at children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Recent research (2014) revealed that schools are keen to achieve a high rating in this area.

Of course Pikuach was not alone in improving Jewish educational provision but it stands proud as the first major initiative to raise the standard of Jewish teaching and learning and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Jeffrey Leader, Director

This article was published in the Jewish News. Click  HERE

See also article in the Jewish Chronicle: Click  HERE