One of the hot conversation topics of late has been the apparent lack of places in Jewish secondary schools. For the parents who spent months anxiously waiting to hear if their child will get a place at their preferred school, it’s been a challenging and frustrating experience. Sadly, there are still children without places.

In June, PaJeS held a meeting for these parents. It was one of the hardest meetings I have led. These were dedicated, caring parents who, owing to a quirk of the location of their home, or failure to win the admissions lottery, are sending their children to mainstream schools, with few, if any, other Jewish children. These parents were not being unreasonable, and felt they had been lost in the system, that the community had failed them and should have been able to do more to help.

From the schools’ perspective, things are not quite so straightforward. The last thing headteachers want is to see children who should be in their school failing to gain a place. The suggestion that schools take an additional child into each form or open up an additional form are fraught with difficulties. Schools are bound by heath and safety guidelines and have limited freedom due to the requirements of the ‘planned admissions number’. They must also ensure that the quality of education of the remaining children is not adversely impacted by the increased numbers.

Even when places become available, the local authority is required to offer them according to the school’s waiting list. This often means that the parents most in need will not be the ones offered the place. This just adds to the desperation of the parents and the desperation of the schools.

There are just under 1,000 Year 7 places available each year at mainstream Jewish schools in London. For those starting this September, the demand has not been greater than the supply. A key issue is that parents living in the vicinity of Redbridge are opting for schools outside the area. This has meant that King Solomon has been undersubscribed, and has taken a large number of children from outside the Jewish community. Changes in the feeder school arrangements for JCoSS and the determination of King Solomon governors to improve their school, reflected in the appointment of their new headteacher Matthew Slater, will hopefully help address this issue and ensure an increased intake in the coming years.

The exceptional GCSE and A-level results are a testament to the excellence of our schools and are no doubt a factor in the increased demand we are seeing for secondary places. There are also an increasing number of students in Jewish primary schools. Over the past few years, Barnet Council has worked to provide for parental preference through expanding Menorah Foundation, the new free schools at Etz Chaim, Rimon and Alma, and the entrance of Beit Schvidler and Sacks Morasha into the state maintained sector.

Planning for future demand, the council is seeking to ensure there is an increase in provision across all faiths as well as increasing community places. It is working closely with PaJeS and is developing proposals to meet the demand from the increased number of primary pupils as they approach secondary stage. This includes exploring the possibility of expanding some existing secondaries to cater for more children. This could increase provision by at least 100 places per year.

If necessary, the community will need to explore the viability of building a new secondary school. However this is not a decision to be taken lightly as the cost is very high. We would need to staff the school at a time when schools are already struggling to ensure they have a full complement of senior leaders and teachers in both Jewish and secular studies. We must also be aware of the concerns of excess provision and the impact this would have on schools across the community.

It is essential that we take informed decisions and ensure there is a clear strategic plan in place. PaJeS will continue to take a lead in this, liaising with schools, local authorities and communal leaders to help ensure the community will be able to provide a Jewish education. PaJeS intends to commission research to ascertain the increased primary numbers within various sectors and locations of our community, and the likelihood that parents will want Jewish secondary schooling.

For parents applying to Jewish secondary schools for the coming year, the best advice we can give is that you include as many Jewish schools as possible on your Common Application Form (CAF) and make sure you are clear which school you want to put first on your list. Most importantly, ensure you apply on time and submit any supplementary form to the schools.

Finally, don’t get overly anxious; it doesn’t help and more than 98 percent of parents do eventually get offered a place for their child.