Keep the faith optional

25th April 2014 at 01:00
To create successful students, religious institutions must offer more than theology

People sometimes have the wrong idea about faith schools. They envisage dogmatic, prescriptive institutions that negate individuality and personal preference. In reality, the leaders of these schools should ensure that the very opposite is true.

I am the headteacher of JFS, a faith school with a long history. It was founded in 1732 and has educated the Jewish children of London for more than 280 years. Yet a visit would reveal that it is not vastly different from any other large, outstanding London institution, and neither should it be.

There are subtle but important differences, of course: the placing of mezuzot (encased scrolls) on our doorposts, the use of Hebrew words on our signs and the wearing of kippot (skullcaps) by our boys. However, these elements do not define us as a school.

Our students are diverse in their upbringings, in their socio-economic backgrounds and in their interaction with religion. I am proud that JFS welcomes students of all Jewish religious practices and none; of intense belief alongside those of little or no observance.

Dangers of devotion

The leaders of faith schools can fall into the trap of prioritising religion above all else. This should not be the case. We have three clear aspirations for our students. We hope they will excel academically and reach their full potential; that they will become leaders both within our community and in the wider world; and that they will make progress on their own individual Jewish journey.

We do not hold a monopoly on belief and this approach underpins our philosophy on both religious practice and religious education. We approach Jewish education by asking what virtues and ideals can be learned from our religion - it is not a tool simply to cover voluminous tomes of scripture. We are proud not only of the scholars who choose to engage in high-level Jewish learning, but also of the non-practising students who develop a sense of religious identity and culture.

This does not mean that religion is hidden away - leaders of faith schools have to be careful not to go too far towards either extreme. At JFS, formal Jewish studies lessons are compulsory from ages 11 to 18, but our approach is liberal (with a small "l") and promotes open dialogue. Our frame of reference is orthodox Judaism, yet all opinions and illustrations of personal practice are welcome additions to the thriving debate that infuses the classroom.

The outcome of this approach is that some of our students do choose to live an orthodox life filled with religious practice and structure. However, the majority find alternative ways to express their faith. This results in a thriving charity committee which raises funds and awareness for both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, domestic and international. We promote tolerance and cohesion within our community and seek to encourage our staff (more than 50 per cent of whom are not Jewish) to share in this experience. It is important as a school leader to welcome every manifestation of faith with equal respect.

Hope and pray

Which leads us to worship. Some faith schools make worship compulsory. We do not. It is a personal act that can become a negative experience when it is made compulsory. We have certain minimum expectations of students (such as modest dress and kosher food) to ensure that our school is welcoming to the most committed from our religion, but practice of our faith is optional. Faith schools also have to be careful not to put the students in a silo where only one religion is visible. Welcoming neighbouring schools to participate in joint activities is a great way to avoid this, as is open discussion about other faiths.

I firmly believe in the importance of our approach. We see discussions on faith as central, not only to the students' own opportunities to formulate their relationship with religion, but as an important tool for them to develop critical thinking skills and debating prowess. We hope this will help them in their studies and enable them to develop as confident, articulate young people, secure in their own identities while respecting those of others in our modern diverse society.

Jonathan Miller is headteacher of the Jewish secondary school JFS in North London

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