How to be radical in the most traditional locality
A group of teenage boys are sitting round a classroom table wearing black velvet skullcaps and listening intently to a teacher telling a story about a talking donkey.
"So, who hit the donkey - Yossi?"
There is a short pause and a bit of shuffling.
"Yes, Bilam, good answer!"
The scene in this Stamford Hill school is repeated in hundreds of classrooms all over the Jewish world. It is the study of the text at the heart of the religion, the Torah. But this particular lesson is extraordinary because the pupils in the class all have special needs, some of them profound. Side by Side, a school in the heart of Europe's largest Hassidic community, was one of the first in the orthodox world to teach Limudei Kodesh - Hebrew for religious studies - at any depth or complexity to pupils with learning disabilities.
Two teachers guide six pupils through the story using a series of pictures based on Makaton sign language to help them understand.
"The boys want to be like everyone else," says Rabbi Yanky Frankel. In a society where life revolves around prayer, it is essential for even the most challenged to grasp the crucial elements of observance. "We don't know how much they can take in, so we must offer them the maximum we can," he says.
But attitudes elsewhere in the community don't always keep up with the school's pioneering ethos. "One parent asked me why I had pictures on the wall of people with special needs smiling. They should be sad," says headteacher Gemma Blaker with a wry smile. "There's still a stigma surrounding people with special needs (in the Hassidic world). I think there's a lot of shame and people think it will affect shidduchim (arranged marriages) for the other siblings."
Mrs Blaker is determined to change thinking from within by showing parents how much their children can achieve while sticking firmly to Jewish practice. "We are trying to do something radical in a traditional way," she says. "We like to think of ourselves as strong advocates of disability rights. It's something I'm passionate about."
Side by Side grew out of one mother's frustration with the choices available to her son, but the school had a difficult evolution precisely because of where and when it started. In 1996, Rebecca Rumpler wanted somewhere to educate her ninth and last child, a boy with Down's syndrome. She says, "I went around to the local schools to ask if they would take him in and they said 'no'." Judah couldn't just follow in the footsteps of his older siblings. By the mid-1990s, "integration" in mainstream schooling may well have become the buzzword around children with special needs, but it wasn't a trend that had impacted on Stamford Hill.
Here, north of the better-known Stoke Newington in the London borough of Hackney, is an enclave of 20,000 highly observant Jews, who pray at 65 synagogues crammed into a grid of car-lined streets. Men hurry along the pavements wearing long black coats and wide-brimmed hats, their curling ear-locks trailing behind. Married women wear wigs or headscarves, their wardrobe dictated by a conservative dress code of long sleeves and mid-calf skirts. You can hear Yiddish spoken in shops bearing Hebrew names like Kol Tov (All Good) Freezer Centre and Tiferes (Beauty) Dry Cleaners.
The twin priorities of Hassidic life are religion and the family, with education of a very particular sort an important concern at every age. Stamford Hill is peppered with private academies, but it is a long way from the model of independent education at institutions like Highgate and University College schools, both only a few miles away. Here, the premises are often ramshackle Victorian terraced houses, with only a few boasting larger, purpose-built facilities.
Though one primary and one secondary have now gained voluntary-aided status, the majority will not consider that route because it would push them towards the national curriculum, with its weight of secular studies. Very few have the kind of organisation or staffing which would allow them to accommodate a special- needs child.
With no other choice for Judah, Mrs Rumpler decided to start a nursery in her own dining room, mixing special-needs pupils with others including her grandchildren. The school has grown, moving from one set of temporary premises to another, but it now occupies a series of portable classrooms at the foot of a hill near the River Lea. There are 65 children on the roll aged from three to 16 and a staff-pupil ratio of three to one, including speech and language therapists, qualified teachers, lots of young classroom assistants and six rabbis. A recent Ofsted report found its nursery "good" across the board.
From outside the portable classrooms look unimpressive. But inside, while it's far from opulent, everything is spotless and orderly and there is a cosy feel, as though the place is run by a set of very affectionate and houseproud parents. This heimish, or homely, atmosphere is the school's greatest asset, but it could also be its Achilles heel. There is a nervousness that lack of professionalism will deter donors and be an obstacle to state support. But too much slickness could alienate parents and undermine the school's core values.
The solution to the problem was to headhunt the highly qualified Mrs Blaker - a religious insider, albeit one with a strong track record as a special needs co-ordinator in secular state schools. With her at the helm, the governors are hoping that free-school status will finally fill the funding gap that has plagued Side by Side since its start.
For the first year of its existence, Mrs Rumpler funded the project out of her own pocket, but then, she says: "I had to go begging, big time." Fifteen years later, the begging bowl is still out. Today only half the school's budget is covered by money allocated by local authorities to statemented children; the rest is found by an energetic body of fundraisers.
"If you don't have a child with special needs, you can continue to live in a bubble. We have far more mothers who only speak Yiddish than I would have imagined before I came here," says Mrs Blaker. "Special needs brings mothers into contact with the outside world in a way they never expected they would need to. If they decide to interact with the mainstream world, they can get far more choices for their children."
She sees the school as a bridge with the outside world, but it is a role that brings constant challenges. Recently, a group of parents, staff and children visited a neighbouring secular special school that has offered to share its more extensive facilities.
"They have been fantastic," says Mrs Blaker, while admitting: "We were all terrified.
"The whole thing has been fraught with anxiety. Our mothers were nervous about their vulnerable children being exposed to non-Jewish influences. And I think the hosts were worried about saying the wrong thing and causing offence. But it was a great success, and it is opening doors."