London — As the school year begins, new research out of Britain is shedding light on the resurgent effort to create successful Jewish schools.
On the one hand, a study that was released this summer by a Jewish organization suggests that British schools are in the midst of a decade-long expansion, with 8% growth since just last year. Free from America’s church-state restrictions, Britain’s Jewish schools have been eligible for government funding, erasing the issue of crippling tuition bills that face most American Jewish schools.
But the new study, titled “The Future of Jewish Schools,” highlighted a different challenge facing Jewish schools in Britain. Though the government pays for secular education, parents are supposed to donate for Jewish studies; but many are unwilling to, even when they clearly can afford it.
“People will say, ‘If it’s voluntary, I’ll pay my golf club fees,’ or say, ‘I just bought a new Mercedes, so I can’t pay,’” said Simon Goulden, a leading expert in British-Jewish education. “Both these statements I’ve heard.”
In America, the notion of state funding for Jewish education or for building identity has long attracted opposition from Jewish proponents of a strong division between church and state. In recent years, however, that division has grown blurry. In 2007, the first government-funded Hebrew-language and culture charter school opened in Florida. Last May, mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt announced that he was funding an effort to back another such school in New York City. Though these schools remain controversial, for many communal leaders the question has shifted: At first it was whether the government should fund secular Jewish schools, it is now how to make this funding happen successfully.
This shifts the debate into territory that is more familiar to Jews in Great Britain. The successes and perils of the British system are laid out in the new report — the first comprehensive study of Britain’s Jewish schools. The Jewish Leadership Council, a charity that embraces all the major Jewish streams, convened the Commission on Jewish Schools, which compiled the report.
“Jewish schooling has never been stronger and Jewish schools are the great success story of Anglo-Jewry in the past 30 years,” the report claims. But it also states that for some parents, the choice “may have relatively little to do with the formal lessons of Jewish studies offered.”
The success of the schools is clear from the numbers. Jewish schools in Britain have grown to almost 30,000 young British Jews today, from 13,000 students 30 years ago, despite the fact that the number of school-aged British Jews has shrunk by 1% to 2% per year. The students attend 85 Jewish schools that, with the exception of a handful, are run along Orthodox lines.
The foundation of this growth is the cost of the schools. Unless an institution opts for private financing in order to maintain control over its curriculum, as many ultra-Orthodox schools choose to do, all schools are publicly funded. This means that while fees in American Jewish day schools can surpass $20,000, the majority of British Jewish schools are free. The only program the government does not cover is Jewish studies, which is covered by parental contributions — around $2,500 a year. That schools request that contribution, but are not allowed to require it.
Despite these low costs, many years ago the schools were less popular, because of a widely held belief that they were less academically rigorous than privately funded schools. Starting a decade ago, though, the British government began releasing statistics about the academic results of government-funded schools. These statistics have shown that Jewish schools have performed extremely well. In the 10 years since the tables were first released, enrollment at Jewish schools has grown 50%.
The government’s school inspection department has attributed the success to the good teachers, motivated parents and the Jewish ethos acting as motivators. Leslie Wagner, chancellor of the University of Derby, who headed the recent study, said that the academic success of Jewish schools erased parents’ lingering doubts.
“It’s become a no-brainer — a question of ‘Why not?’ instead of ‘Why?’” Wagner told the Forward.
Like their counterparts in the United States, educational experts in Britain say that the willingness to look at Jewish schools is also a matter of changing cultural mores and a desire to embrace religious tradition.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, the assumption was that people wanted a multicultural hotchpotch,” said Marie Parker-Jenkins, education professor at the University of Derby and author of several studies on the United Kingdom’s faith schools. “Now that has changed, and we see a resurgence of religion as a major factor in personal identity.”
The successes and low costs mean that the schools have managed to attract a segment of the population that most Jewish communal leaders are hungry for: the children of the intermarried and the less affiliated. The new study indicates that among students at Jewish schools, only 42% attend synagogue on the Sabbath, and 45% eat nonkosher food outside the home.
But the success has imperiled the very Jewish nature of the schools. Requesting anonymity, a teacher at one of these schools said that “there is a percentage of parents sending their children to Jewish schools who are just not interested in Jewish studies.”
Wagner said that an institution where 85% of parents pay the Jewish studies fee in full would be seen as exceptional. Some teachers told the Forward that in their schools, the figure is just 50%. While Jewish studies teaching continues, the Commission on Jewish Schools reported that the “fragile, slightly hand-to-mouth basis on which this is funded constrains any proposals for improving Jewish studies that involve increased finance.”
The schools have also become heavily reliant on Jewish charities.
“Jewish schools are actually in a worse situation than in the private sector, where if fees are paid, a child is not enrolled,” Wagner said. “It is difficult to budget, as they may know what the student numbers will be but do not know what money they will receive.”
Despite the problems facing British Jewish schools, Howard Deitcher, co-author of “Jewish Day Schools, Jewish Communities,” the first book-length study of Jewish day schools around the world, believes that their arrangement with the government is a model to which American Jews could aspire.
“One of the greatest obstacles facing American Jewish schools is the high cost to parents, and charter schools do not provide the kind of intensity in Jewish experience that U.K. schools do,” said Deitcher, director of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The enormous advantage of the British system is something the U.S. community can learn a lot from. It can go about lobbying national and state governments to subsidize tuition in Jewish schools.”