We’re Staying Put, Says King Solomon Head

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On the face of it, it seems a neat solution. There is a shortage of places at state-aided Jewish secondary schools in north-west London which is predicted to get worse over the next few years.

Meanwhile, in Essex, the Jewish intake at the Kantor King Solomon High School has dropped in recent years to a third. So why not transfer King Solomon to a new home further north where there are more Jewish children? After all, JFS moved not so long ago.

It is an option that the United Synagogue has been exploring to alleviate the pressure on places. But as far as King Solomon is concerned, “that is not in our plans”, its headteacher Matthew Slater said, “We’re staying here.”

Whatever happens in north-west London, he stressed, “our focus is on north-east London, Redbridge and south Essex.”

The former deputy head of Yavneh College arrived at King Solomon 15 months ago with a mission to increase its appeal to local families. But he resisted the temptation that newcomers often feel to make sweeping changes. “I was mindful of the fact that there had been so much change of leadership in the school, the last thing the school needed was for me to come in like a bull in a china shop and start kicking doors down,” he said.

His policy of “tweaking” here and there where he felt improvements necessary was rewarded when Ofsted, which had been critical of King Solomon two years before, last month declared it a good school.

“Many families have been waiting for us to improve King Solomon and the Ofsted grading was one part of that,” he said, “I think they want to feel confident our GCSE results will improve and that will be another step in the right direction. Our A-level results were always strong.”

In recent years, around 50 to 60 Jewish children have been applying to King Solomon where 180 first-year places are available. But as word of progress spreads, he believes that more Jewish families will choose it rather than local non-Jewish schools or Jewish schools in north-west London.

While he hopes for a good set of GCSE results this summer, he emphasised that he “always wanted a school that is more than just an exam factory. Children have got to have skills in communication and team-building, not just a set of certificates that they have got ‘x’ amount of GCSEs. That’s helped by the vision and the moral dimension, the Jewish elements of the school.”

He has introduced a “massive focus” on literacy and extended writing in the early years, believing that secondary schools sometimes underestimate the capability of younger children. He also plans to increase choice in the sixthform.

“Some schools open hairdressing or beauty salons – that’s not what we want to do,” he said. “We want to focus on what we do well: arts, business, sciences and languages. We want to build on our academic roots but broaden the offer.”

Beyond the Ofsted boost, the school has also enjoyed a vote of confidence in the form of the sponsorship of Dr Moshe Kantor, hence the recent addition to its name. The president of the European Congress has previously invested in the Wohl Ilford Primary School, which shares King Solomon’s Barkingside campus.

The size of the gift Mr Slater will not reveal other than it is “generous” and will provide “additional funds that will enable us to do more than what we could do within a normal school budget. We’re still finalising exactly what we can use the money for.”

While its Jewish ethos as a United Synagogue school remains central, he regards the way it integrates non-Jewish pupils as a strength. “It’s become a very inclusive community, where we value the difference of the children.”

All children study Judaism and at least for two years take Ivrit. “We have had non-Jewish children studying A-level Ivrit, which is astonishing when you consider how difficult it is.”

While the Jewish children will engage in more in-depth Torah studies than their non-Jewish peers, they will also learn something about faiths other than their own.

“Our Jewish studies staff learn about the other religions so they can share and educate. We can also learn from the children who come from those religions,” he said. “The more we are aware of all the religions and what we share in common, the more we are going to be able to educate the young people to be positive citizens of the future.

“My view has always been that we’ve got more in common than there are differences. We have got to learn about those commonalities and understand the differences.”

While King Solomon was “upfront about what is important to us”, he said, it was popular with “children of other faiths because they like the moral code, the family values, the community”.

He would like to increase participation from non-Jewish children in such activities as the summer Year nine Israel trip – there was just one out of 19 children in all who took the trip this year. He went out for part of it this year, his first visit to the country. “It was absolutely wonderful,” he said.

“We want to get as many children going as is humanly possible. If we can keep the costs down [currently over £1,500], that’s one way of doing it.” But irrespective of that, all children “learn about the importance of Israel to the Jewish population”.

The shorter, sixthform trip to Poland attracted a larger number of non-Jewish children.

As a Jewish school with a more diverse pupil body, he said, “We’ve become a beacon of how you can do it.”