Is multi-faith school an impossible dream?

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
TO HAVE four applicants chasing every place is, by any standard, a sign of success. Akiva, a private primary in Finchley, north London, is certainly not the only Jewish day school to be heavily oversubscribed.

But until last September, it occupied a unique position: it was the only one under the wing of Judaism's Progressive movements, all the rest being controlled by the Orthodox majority.

Then, at the beginning of the academic year the first two voluntary-aided Progressive or pluralist Jewish primaries opened. What's more, Akiva is also pursuing aided status, bringing hope to anxious parents with plans to more than double its intake over the next few years. Four other Progressive primaries are on the drawing board, while there is even talk of a secondary school.

What is remarkable about this, amid the general growth in religious schooling which has seen the first aided Sikh and Muslim schools, is the striking change of heart it represents. For many years, the Reform and smaller Liberal movement - which together make up just over a quarter of synagogue members - had been "resolutely opposed" to denominational schools, Reform director Rabbi Tony Bayfield candidly acknowledged in a recent article, having considered them "sectarian" and "divisive". The main reason for this astonishing volte-face is not hard to find: it lies in bald demographics. British Jews have dropped from a post-war high of around 430,000 in the mid-50s to 283,000 at the last count, a hefty decrease.

Parents realise that they can no longer take it for granted that their children will remain Jewish when they grow up: but they can ensure that when their children come to choose, they are in a position to make an educated choice.

Day schools may not be a universal panacea, but they have an advantage beyond simply the amount of Jewish studies they can timetable. It's the intangible, experiential aspect they offer, a Jewish ethos which permeates the whole life of the school.

To many parents, they appear academically a safer bet. Critics may dismiss this as simply a question of intake, caricaturing "church" schools as mainly refuges for middle-class parents unable to afford the cost of private schooling. But perhaps the time has come for more seriousresearch to see whether there is any link - hard for secularists to swallow - between a school's religious ethos and its more general educational achievement.

Irrespective of their personal piety, parents also seem to continue to value religious schools as a source of moral direction, a counterweight perhaps to the hedonistic allure of youth culture. From one vantage point, religion in Britain looks on the downward slope, measured by such things as the fall in Church of England attendances (although the decline in worship is not seen in all branches of Christianity, let alone other religions). But while people may have trouble with the supernaturalist doctrines of religion, they may still respect their ethical messages.

All of this may have opponents of denominational schools throwing up their hands in horror. But rather than the predictable denunciations of "educational ghettos," they would do better to come up with viable alternatives.

The argument is often put that religion ought to be a matter for the home. It's true that the home and the immediate local community may be the most important influences on a child, when it comes to practice. But religions represent more than a simple package of rituals and dogmas.

It is hard enough to provide a rounded, comprehensive Jewish education within a Jewish school, never mind a regular secular school. For all the advances within multi-faith, multi-cultural curricula, there is simply nowhere within the ordinary state system for children from "minority" cultures to study their own traditions in depth. To do so, would require a complete re-think, a reorganisation of the school timetable that would enable such children to withdraw for one or two afternoons a week into specific streams for education in their own faith-culture.

An alternative option - which might assuage some of those worried by segregation, though not outright secularists - is an idea being canvassed by one rabbi. His goal is a multi-faith religious school where Jews, Christians and Muslims would learn together, while receiving instruction in their own specific traditions. A dream perhaps, but then what are religious leaders, if not dreamers?

Simon Rocker is a journalist with the Jewish Chronicle

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