By David Saffer
Sinai Jewish Primary School is Europe’s largest Jewish primary school serving 640 pupils across North West London and Hertfordshire.
Set on a large campus in Kenton, Sinai has Maths Mastery status and prides itself on being forward thinking educators.
With a staunch Jewish ethos in a modern orthodox setting, Sinai excels in secular and Jewish studies, values multi-faith work, British citizenship and heritage.
Mrs Juliette Lipshaw is headteacher and responsible for 102 members of staff, including 45 teachers. She began her tenure in September heralding a new academic year.
Life at Sinai, which is not in the heart of a Jewish community, is never dull.
Children from Stanmore, Hendon, Edgware, Elstree, Radlett, Borehamwood, Harrow and Brent attend the school.
Whilst not a community school it offers 90 places per year group, three times that of a small primary school.
Mrs Lipshaw is a former pupil at Sinai.
After graduating and taking up a profession in teaching, a return initially as a governor followed when her own children attended, then as deputy head when the post was advertised.
Now head, how does it feel having been a pupil?
“It’s amazing, a joy and a privilege,” she enthused.
“I love coming to work every day, it’s a fabulous place to work, I have a brilliant team of teachers and senior team. The children are amazing and supportive.
“The structure of the school is the same but has changed since I came here.
“Walking around, you do see images of yourself when I came here.
“It’s a funny feeling and sometimes at assembly you catch yourself thinking, I sat there 33 years ago listening to my head teacher. It is amazing to be standing in front of all the pupils.”
So has the ethos changed over the decades?
“No, there was always a great love of Israel, Judaism, yiddishkeit and a strong secular education,” Sinai’s head explained.
“We are very forward thinking, move with the times and are always thinking about new educational initiatives and innovations.
“We are not stuck in the 1970s but the heart of the school is very much there. It’s about excellent education, academic excellence, both secular and Jewish, that has stayed true to the school.
“There is also a real sense of warmth in the school you don’t get at every school and it was there when I was a pupil.
“Whenever you talk to people and ask which school did you go to, and they say Sinai, there is a joy and love which is still very much the case.
“Our pupils love it here and the first thing visitors say when walking around is that the children are happy. That is really important.
“Happy children, happy parents, happy staff, there is nothing more important than that in primary education.”
Historically, Sinai started out as the Bayswater Jewish School, founded by members of the Bayswater Synagogue for the children of “poorer brethren”.
Originally based in Harrow Road, the school opened at Westbourne Park Villas as Paddington Bayswater Jewish School in 1867. The school moved to a new building in Harrow Road in 1879 and by 1903 had accommodation for 419 pupils.
Moving to Lancaster Road in 1930, it became Kensington Bayswater Jewish School, later Solomon Wolfson.
By the late 70’s, after decades of hard work behind the scenes, Michael Sobell Sinai School opened with pupils and staff coming from Solomon Wolfson and Yavneh Schools in 1981.
The coming years would see extensive development, and by 1997, Sinai was the largest Jewish Primary School in Europe.
When it comes to high school education, most pupils from Sinai go on to study at Yavneh and the Jewish Free School than to other private schools.
In recent years there has been plenty of debate whether a proliferation of Jewish schools has affected Shabbat attendances at synagogues.
“One of the special things about Sinai is that we have a mix of parents who are traditional to very religious,” said Mrs Lipshaw.
“We believe in giving children firm foundations and roots, to make being Jewish magical so that they want to continue their Jewish education, their Jewish journey and remember songs they learnt in primary school when they sit at a seder table in years to come.
“It’s an interesting debate and a shame there are not more youth groups but it’s really important for parents to continue to encourage children to be involved.”
Another ‘hot topic’ is that some parents that do not believe in faith schools, an issue about which Mrs Lipshaw not surprisingly has strong views.
“There is absolutely a place for faith schools,” she said.
“It’s really important, providing the faith school brings in an understanding of British citizenship and other cultures into the school.
“We believe passionately about having a very strong Jewish identity, Jewish culture and affiliation to Israel but we also have very strong British values. We teach our children what it means to be a British citizen and abide by British values within our school.
“In terms of democracy, we have a school council and elections. We believe wholeheartedly that we have to teach our children to be able to function in British society, to be good outstanding citizens and understand about other cultures and religions.
“We link with other schools and included in our timetable is ‘Our World’ when pupils learn about other religions and cultures.
“We are also part of the Three Faiths Forum and link with Jewish schools around the world.
“My argument to parents who are anti faith schools is that our children are well-rounded. We do all the work one would do in a secular school academically, we give pupils an extra understanding about their culture and heritage but then go that extra mile to say it is our duty to teach children about the world around them – other cultures, religions and Britain.”
Sinai’s head noted that for year one pupils there is a need to see a path all the way through to year six – and not just in terms of education.
“There has to be aspiration,” explained Mrs Lipshaw. “We want to be the best in everything that we do and to make it really exciting.
“Our year six residential used be an outdoor activity centre but we changed that to a week in Wales which includes walking, mountain climbing and surfing so it’s a real highlight for pupils.
“Walking through gorges in rivers and sea surfing is unbelievable. The children have a magical week.”
She added, “Last year, we put on the Lion King show, which was an incredible production with costumes and a brilliant sound system so the hall came to life.
“It’s about children being aspirational and knowing when they get to year six it’s amazing for them. They walk around the school with pride and are exemplars for the rest of school.
“The children also produce a newspaper and have a siyum to mark the end of Jewish learning, which is a very emotional ceremony. All parents attend and it’s a really special time.”
For this Jewish head, the job is all consuming and all options are evaluated.
“It’s important parents know about us as we are not a community school, we are not down the road where children can walk to school but we make it worth the effort because of our facilities,” Mrs Lipshaw enthused.
“We have introduced ‘extended services’ for working parents.
We run lunchtime and after-school clubs till 6pm, which is appreciated by parents. There are theatre groups, drama, art and sport clubs. Our facilities are comparable to those of a secondary school in that we have a huge campus.”
She added, “We constantly update our school to find ways of making us unique. We have a sensory and multi-purpose room where we do cookery and science.
“Our provision for special needs children is amazing.
“Building work last summer created a special sensory room. Pupils might have emotional needs, dyslexia, dyscalculia but by the same token we have a broad spectrum with a high proportion high-achieving so we challenge and stretch them.
“It’s about giving opportunities and skills, laying foundations, making sure children can be independent, giving them digital skills, helping them to become articulate, confident and knowledgeable about the world around them.
“The curriculum is more than just English, Maths, History, Geography and the sciences. Children need to function in a very competitive world. And as a Maths Mastery School, it’s about ‘whole class’ teaching so every child has the opportunity to excel, challenge and master.”
With the latter points in mind, Sinai balances the past and present when it comes to technology and learning.
“Although I’m forward thinking, I’m quite old fashioned,” explained Mrs Lipshaw.
“Children have to acquire the traditional skills, to learn their times tables, have good handwriting and know how to write an essay, but at the same time, we want them to programme, word process, manage an excel spreadsheet and be really competent in digital literacy.
“You have to find a balance between being pushy and highly competitive, excelling academically but also looking after mental wellbeing. So during mental health day, we did exercises in relaxation and mindfulness in the classroom.
“There is balance and you see that culture when you walk around the school.
“Pupils are industrious but calm and purposeful. Its not a stressful environment but balance is important.”
As for the future, Mrs Lipshaw noted, “We aim to continue being a thriving Jewish school, to keep pace with the future and always be a step ahead.
“Whatever the future holds for our children, we want to equip them for that, encourage them to love being Jewish, to love learning and to enjoy it.
“You have to be careful that you remain loving and nurturing because we are talking about primary school children. We are the biggest, but we make it our business to know the needs of every child emotionally and academically.”