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A fresh perspective from ancient times

Victoria Neumark and Jill Craven report on how two ethnic minorities use education to perpetuate their culture.

In an old police academy building in Colindale, north London, the 420 girls of the Beth Jacob Primary School follow a dual curriculum. But the school's atmosphere is far from that of a gloomy heads-down fact factory. While they learn all the subjects of the national curriculum they also become conversant with most aspects of Jewish culture, including liturgical and classical Hebrew.

Schooling begins early - from the age of four - and immediately focuses on literacy. Children cut out Hebrew letters and take these home in tubs to memorise. A message book keeps parents and teachers informed of progress and setbacks. They achieve fluency in reading English early, but reading in Hebrew, which at first is a question of sounding out rather than decoding meaning, takes longer, though some degree of fluency is expected after a year of school.Though they do not become bilingual, if that implies the ability to converse and write in another language, they do emerge from the school bi-literate.

The routines of Jewish life with its annual round of festivals, with its rituals and customs, permeate the integrated day and most national curriculum teaching is done on a cross-curricular topic model. The Jewish teaching, on the other hand uses older traditions of whole-class, talk-based didacticism, so that chanting, reading round the class, and memorising, are all major features. Music and drama are well developed, and a school choir sings at major functions.

The exclusively female staff ("I wish we could have some male teachers!" exclaims headteacher Mrs Caroline Scharfer) operate two or three to a class, so that a dual teaching policy - one keeping the Jewish angle, one a qualified teacher working away on the national curriculum - is always in force. Three classes in each year group, with 20 - 25 children in each class soak up an amazing 63 staff. On the day I visited the little girls bubbled and swirled enthusiastically around their class teacher and kept rushing up to the headteacher to congratulate her on the recent birth of her grandson. The staff responded to them with a mixture of maternal indulgence and firm demands.

Of course, as an independent school, (fees currently Pounds 2,700 per year at the discretion of the governors) Beth Jacob does not have to follow the national curriculum. And with a constituency described as "well to the right of the United Synagogue" by Benjamin Perl, one of its governors, it has some problems coping with underlying attitudes. (The United Synagogue, headed by Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, represents the largest single body of Orthodox Jews in Britain). Jewish orthodoxy, for example, is far from convinced by the Renaissance elevation of the Greeks to the pinnacle of human art and thought.

However, the school aims to tie in the national curriculum to the events of the Jewish year. Chanukah, festival of lights and liberation, offers a chance to study electricity and heat, and classical Greek culture; Purim, at which children traditionally dress up, offers a chance for drama, art and craft.

Each class has shelves of maths and English schemes but also Hebrew prayer books. Work on classroom walls may feature Hebrew calligraphy and sayings from the prophets as well as photographs of school plays and concerts.

According to Mrs Scharfer, "the children deal with the dualism very well". They know, for instance, that for science the day begins at midnight, but for Jewish purposes each day starts at sunset. "We teach them there are two systems. They live in dual culture."

Parents are involved in the classroom, in the school bazaar, in class productions for each festival, usually via the class representative. But many mothers (it is usually mothers) have several children and their time is limited. However they are content to enforce the homework policy (compulsory from Year 3), to reinforce the ethos of the community ("we do discourage more than an hour or so a day of television" says Mr Perl) and to send their daughters into a Jewish environment. That gives the children an observable, secure start in life. And their Hebrew is fantastic.

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