The Conversation: Belief in the community

25th January 2008 at 00:00
Setting up a faith school from scratch? Jonathan Fingerhut, trustee of a new Jewish school, talks to Yojana Sharma about the importance of faith and community.

Q: Permission has been granted for a new Jewish community secondary school in East Barnet, north London, that is not tied to any particular branch of the faith. Did it take a long time to set everything up?

A: About six years ago a committee was set up mainly of parents, many of whom wanted their children to attend such a school. I chaired this committee. After four years of hard slog, going from one local authority to another trying to persuade them to support us, Barnet agreed. The rest is now history.

Q: Why the need for another Jewish secondary school?

A: According to our research, many parents - from mainstream Jewish Orthodox to secular - favour a more inclusive approach. Our curriculum will be broad, inclusive and outward looking. It will celebrate diversity and mutual respect, within and beyond the Jewish community, building bridges, not more walls.

I make no criticism of other Jewish schools, but they do not meet the needs of the whole community. They are all run under the auspices of the Orthodox community.

Q: How will this school be different from other faith schools?

A: Our aim is to be inclusive and outward looking. We will treat all the strands of Jewish belief and practice equally. We will encourage pupils to find out about and spend time with those of other faiths and of none. We will look at twinning arrangements and exchanges with other schools. And we will play an active part in our local community, opening up our facilities whenever practical. It is this approach that led former schools minister Stephen Twigg to describe it as a "blueprint for 21st century faith education".

Q: Are there particular difficulties in setting up a faith school?

A: It is hard for any group of parents to promote a new school. There is an enormous amount to do and it is hard to find a way through the maze.

Q: Faith schools must contribute to community cohesion. How?

A: We engaged with the local community in a direct way. There were all sorts of rumours; some people thought there would be a huge barbed wire fence with searchlights. We said this will be like any other school. We held meetings and surgeries from the planning stage and changes were made to take into account the concerns of local people.

Community cohesion does not start when you open but from the very first stages. It takes time to break down misconceptions.

Q: Is it fair for the Government to expect schools to be the "glue" for diverse communities?

A: The mistake is regarding faith schools as necessarily divisive. In fact, if they teach children mutual respect and understanding and give them a strong sense of, and confidence in, their own identities, and are consistently outward looking rather than insular, I believe they can play a vital part in providing that glue. The right sort of faith education is a central part of the solution.

Q: Now Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, says the Government is not leading a drive for more faith schools, clearly a different message to that given by Tony Blair. Will there be more or might yours be the last?

A: I am sure it will not be the last. The Secretary of State has made it clear that any expansion of faith schools will be decided by the local community. The demand needs to come from the bottom up, not the top down. I cannot fault the support we have had from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Jonathan Fingerhut is a trustee of the Jewish Community Secondary opening in 2009-10 in north London. He is a business and marketing strategy consultant. Yojana Sharma is a journalist and international affairs specialist.

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