Jewish Day Schools in the U.K.: More Students, Less Money

LONDON - As the school year begins, new research out of Britain is shedding light on the effort to create successful Jewish schools.

On one hand, a study released this summer by a Jewish organization suggests that Jewish schools in Britain are in the midst of a decade-long expansion, with 8 percent growth since last year alone. Free of America's church-state restrictions, Britain's Jewish schools are eligible for government funding, erasing the crippling tuition bills that hamper most American Jewish schools.

But the new study, titled "The Future of Jewish Schools," highlights 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 been opposed by 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 would fund 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. Now, it is 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 movements, convened the Commission on Jewish Schools, which compiled the report.

'The greatest success story'

"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 schools' success is clear from the numbers: Today, they educate almost 30,000 young British Jews, up from 13,000 students 30 years ago, despite the fact that the number of school-aged British Jews has shrunk by 1 to 2 percent per year. There are 85 Jewish schools, of which all but a handful are run along Orthodox lines.

The foundation of this growth is the schools' cost: Unless an institution opts for private financing to maintain control over its curriculum, as many ultra-Orthodox schools do, all the schools are publicly funded. This means that while annual 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. But while schools request that contribution, they are not allowed to require it.

Despite the low costs, the schools were less popular in the past, 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 show that Jewish schools have performed extremely well. In the 10 years since the tables were first released, enrollment at Jewish schools has grown 50 percent.

The government's school inspection department attributes the success to good teachers, motivated parents and the Jewish ethos, which acts as motivator. 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 have enabled the schools to attract a segment of the population that most Jewish communal leaders hunger for: children of the intermarried and the less affiliated. The new study indicates that among students at Jewish schools, only 42 percent attend synagogue on the Sabbath, and 45 percent eat nonkosher food outside the home.

However, this success has imperiled the very Jewish nature of the schools. "There is a percentage of parents sending their children to Jewish schools who are just not interested in Jewish studies," said a teacher at one school, who requested anonymity.

Living hand-to-mouth

Wagner said that an institution where 85 percent 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 percent.

While Jewish studies continue, 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 not 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 Center 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."

By arrangement with the Forward