Last year was an enormously busy year for us at Gesher and for our community as a whole. As we start 2023 and reflect on the achievements of 2022 there are two members of the Gesher community we would like to extend a special congratulations to. Firstly, Rama Venchard, our Chair of Governors, who received an MBE in King Charles II’s first New Years Honours List for his services to education. And secondly, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who has received a knighthood in recognition of his interfaith initiatives, work with the Jewish community, and involvement in education programmes, of which we at Gesher have been lucky enough to be a part of. Mazal tov from Gesher!
Redesigning Education: What Can and Should Philanthropic Organisations Do?
Ali Durban & Paul Ramsbottom OBE, The Wolfson Foundation
Paul Ramsbottom OBE is Chief Executive of The Wolfson Foundation, an independent grant-making charity, funding programmes and activities throughout the UK. The Foundation’s fundamental aim is to improve the civic health of society, mainly through education and research. He is also the Chief Executive of a linked charity, the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust.
Gesher School was delighted to receive a grant from the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust in 2021 to adapt and equip a Maker Space in our building. We value enormously our relationship with Paul and with the Wolfson charities because our values and mission are closely aligned and we recognise the important role that philanthropic organisations like The Wolfson Foundation can play in helping schools who want to do things differently to realise their ambitions.
We asked Paul to share with us his thinking about the role of philanthropy in education in the 21st century. Here’s what he told us…
Discussions about the role of philanthropy in the English education system have tended to polarise around two extreme positions.
At one extreme is the view that education in modern society is the preserve of Government alone, and that there is therefore little or no role for philanthropy. This is a view frequently expressed on social media, often by people who are knowledgeable about or involved in education.
At the other extreme is an articulation of a role for philanthropy that in some ways lets the Government off the hook, by plugging gaps that probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.
In between these two extremes, and in reality, there are at least three important roles that philanthropy plays:
The first is to support innovation in education; to fund schools, colleges and universities to trial new ideas. By being the provider and underwriter of risk capital in the education system, philanthropists enable educators to do things that the Government can’t or won’t do or support.
The second is to fund capital infrastructure projects necessary for ambitious organisations to fulfil elements of their strategic vision, which would otherwise be unachievable. Buildings and equipment are difficult to fund from statutory sources and can rarely be afforded from core funding. Philanthropy can provide the additional funding that organisations need to really allow them to fly.
The third role for philanthropy, beyond funding for innovation or infrastructure, is as part of a wider ecosystem of organisations, including Government, professional educators and civil society, who are stakeholders in education and who work, together and separately, to bring about system change that will benefit children and young people.
Some philanthropists take a campaigning and lobbying approach, which can be extremely effective. The Sutton Trust, for instance, with its focus on education for social mobility, consistently campaigns for better support in our education system for our most disadvantaged children and young people.
The Wolfson Foundation is not a campaigning organisation; on occasion, however, the Foundation funds research that grows system capacity and capability and contributes significantly to the body of knowledge necessary to support system change.
Recently the Foundation has invested heavily in children and young people’s mental health, with significant funding going to school and community-based initiatives which aim to help children struggling with anxiety and depression.
Already a growing problem, the pandemic exacerbated challenges facing children and young people, who are presenting in higher numbers than ever before with poor mental health. It’s a huge problem facing many Western societies, including our own. However, it is also a problem that is poorly understood. Whilst we might all share some intuition about why this generation of young people seems to be more troubled than previous generations — the prevalence and role of social media, for instance — the reality is that we don’t actually know. Even if our hunch is right, we need evidence to be able to take on social media companies and persuade them to make the necessary changes.
The Wolfson Foundation is funding research into a range of practice approaches that aim to build young people’s resilience to deal with the challenges that life unfortunately throws at us all, as well as improving access to high-quality therapy and clinical support.
An example of this is the new Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health in Cardiff. Waiting times in the current system are lamentable and the answer can’t simply be to try and provide more counsellors than ever. In the meantime, children and young people continue to struggle without the help they need.
Philanthropic funding should be a resource for everyone.
We need complete systemic change and there is a role for philanthropy in achieving that, both in terms of the research we can fund and providing support for innovators who are trying different ways of working.
Making Philanthropy Accessible to Everyone
If we truly believe that philanthropy can and should have a role in a modern education system, then it becomes really important that access to philanthropic funding shouldn’t simply be the preserve of schools that happen to have an affluent parent community or have professional or fundraising skills in their governing body. Philanthropic funding should be a resource for everyone.
Over the last couple of years, The Wolfson Foundation has been working with a number of partners to create a completely free framework and toolkit for every school in the country. It’s a kind of A to Z or ‘How To…’ of fundraising for schools hoping to look, perhaps for the first time, beyond their parents and local communities for financial support for their plans.
Professional Prompt Questions
Is there a project in your community that needs transformation, perhaps a physical learning space or a bold idea?
Can you capture why it is so critical to your students, and how it will change their outcomes? Will you be able to evidence this?
Have you researched the costs to fund the project and produced a budget to support it?
Are you aware of opportunities for philanthropic support in your area? Is your organisation and proposal eligible for funding? Are there other funding opportunities beyond your local community?
Could the framework and toolkit mentioned above be of value to your school?
Faith, Education and SEND: The Forgotten Sector
Lost in History: Since the 1990s there has been a growing debate, both inside and outside academia, about the role faith schools should play in a 21st-century education system and whether or not they should exist at all, with strong and divided opinions both for and against. And within this politically and religiously charged debate, there has been a distinct lack of consideration given to the SEND perspective.
In the UK, policy still does not permit the creation of SEND faith-free schools and when challenged or asked why this is, no one we have met on our journey in the creation of Gesher has been able to give a satisfactory or justified answer — other than to agree that this is indeed the statute. Today in the UK 35% of state-maintained schools are faith-based whilst ‘almost all’ (with no definitive numbers published) private independent schools are aligned to a faith but not necessarily practising faith.
Google ‘SEND faith schools in the UK’ and no list will pop up.
The development of faith schools in the UK is historic, from when cathedrals and monasteries began providing an education to boys who were to become monks and priests in the 6th century, whilst the first schools for children, ‘blind and deaf, epileptic, and mentally and physically disabled’ were only legislated for some 1500 years later, in 1918. For many centuries, those with SEND were not deemed worthy of a formal, or even informal education, so it could reasonably be argued that the lack of consideration given to the SEND faith education community is a symptom of the immaturity of the SEND education system as a whole.
Parents and schools today are thankfully, in general, far more aspirational for their SEND children. Inclusion and neurodiversity have become part of our everyday vernacular and our attitudes and ideas around SEND education are continuously evolving. We are still learning much about how best to differently educate those who are differently able, yet to date, the faith element simply has not been factored in. Seemingly, this group within our society has, at best, been ignored, or it has been actively decided for them that faith does not or should not play a role in how we educate SEND pupils.
There is the old African saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. For those with SEND that village is incredibly important. It extends beyond the school gate to the institutions, places of work, places of worship, and welfare systems in the communities that a young person grows up in. Yet there has been very little research done on the intersection of faith, SEND, education and community with no empirical data freely available on how SEND students feel and relate to their faith, how faith impacts their identity, how it shapes and contributes to their everyday lives and whether they and their families feel that a faith-based education is beneficial for them.
Culture and Community Values Matter
No doubt this is a complex area of study and differing cultures and faiths will have different attitudes and views towards their SEND populations. At Gesher, our Jewish religious perspective informs the type of Jewish culture, ethos and core defining principles of the school. Learning about one’s faith is not only concerned with developing the pupils’ knowledge and understanding of each aspect of their Jewish Heritage but also with developing their love for and commitment to its laws and practices, which include moral and ethical teachings and values. With this ideology at the forefront of our curriculum, Jewish Studies is taught at Gesher not as an academic subject, but as a way of life.
I think it’s been the making of her… without it, I think she would feel quite lost.. it’s become her safe space.
Parents Appreciate its Value
Ron Berger said ‘As a faith-based school, everyone who chooses to send their child to Gesher knows that there is more to life than academics. There is the human character of who you are as a human being. You choose to send your child to a faith-based school because your faith and your culture is something that matters to you because you want your kids to embrace values that you care about. And those values mean being a good person.’
For one parent, who knew that her son’s Jewish identity was important to him, it was a key factor in looking for a school. ‘It’s one of the reasons we chose Gesher in the first place. Because he enjoyed the Jewish side of things, we wanted somewhere that would meet his needs, and also meet his religious beliefs as well.’ For another parent, the faith element of the school, whilst initially seen as ‘a nice incentive’ rather than a non-negotiable, has come to be considered a crucial part of her daughter’s education. ‘I think it’s been the making of her… without it, I think she would feel quite lost.. it’s become like her safe space.’
The value of community permeates throughout the school and informs a large part of our practice. At Gesher, whilst we celebrate the individual: “…for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other.” (Talmud Brachot 58a), being part of a community means looking out for others, taking responsibility for each other and coming together in unity as a collective: “do not separate yourself from the community” (Hillel).
The power of community transforms the individual and at Gesher, we actively foster community amongst the pupils, the staff, our local Jewish community, the wider Jewish community and the world in the form of Tikun Olam which literally means to repair and improve the world. This concept shapes many of our programmes around social justice, giving to others and caring for our environment. We view school as just one of the structures that supports the young people that attend, so we must recognise that we do not operate in a silo, and the measure of our pupils’ success should not be in isolation. Rather it is our responsibility to understand the communities from which our students come and to work with them.
In a recent discussion with parents, the topic of community was featured as an important factor. All parents, regardless of their religious orientation, spoke in a similar way about what it was like being part of the school’s Jewish community. One said, ‘You feel you’ve got a family, it’s an extended family, you know you are all in it together.’ It would be an oversimplification to suggest that this is exclusively down to the religious orientation of the school but it does certainly contribute greatly to a feeling of belonging that extends beyond the school gates. Other unifying factors, such as parents’ collective experience of having a neurodiverse child are undoubtedly also at play. However, within the discussion around the theme of community, parents regularly mentioned the role that religious festivals play in building and fostering this feeling. Talking about last year’s Passover celebrations, one parent said, ‘You feel involved… everyone [children and parents] is experiencing it together’.
For many, faith matters. For SEND young people too. They will need support to access the texts and tenets and practices and celebrations of their family’s and community’s faith so that inclusion for them is meaningful and supportive. It is a part of their learning and they have learning needs that we should strive to meet.
End Note: To quote Lord Rabbi Sacks: ‘Children who are confident in their identity, know their people’s story, are familiar with its literature and at home in its practices, understand their responsibilities to the wider society and practise the values of tzedakah (charity) and chessed (kindness) are at peace with themselves and with the world. They become a credit to the Jewish people and an asset to Britain. We can ask no more; we can do no less.‘
In one recent school project our year 8 students were asked to design a T-shirt which conveys their identity. What makes them who they are? How important is their name? What are the influences that shape their character? For these particular students, faith proved relevant to how they view themselves and contextualise themselves in their world at large.
For my T-shirt, I have made a design which shows my outer and inner self. My outer self is what people see when they look at me, I have drawn a self-portrait of half of my face. I have brown hair and when I am happy, this shows on my face by having a wide smile. My inner self and the other half of my face is a football as well as my future career as a footballer. Inside the ball, I have written the emotions I feel most on the inside which are happiness, excitement and sadness. I also added feeling nervous as this is how I feel before I play a football game. I have also drawn a Kippah, dreidel and Torah as this represents my Jewish identity which is very important to me. — Shamai (Year 8)
My inspiration for this project was to focus on what my passion is and to me, that’s cars. Based on this, I split my face in two and used one half to show how people see me on the outside and the other half to show how I like to be seen by the world. I did this by replacing some of my facial features with my favourite parts of a car. Also, I replaced my brain with a twin-turbo V8 engine representing the power of thinking. As well as cars, I’m very passionate about making people laugh. Coming up with jokes is one of my favourite hobbies and I can make my friends feel better with my jokes whenever they’re hurt or feeling sad. To show this, I gave myself a big smile and added a ‘HAHAHA’ over my head. Being Jewish is a very big part of my identity and it is something I am very proud of so I drew a star of David in the middle of my eye to show my unique Jewish perspective on life. This piece represents my favourite parts about myself and shows everyone what makes me, me. — Ariel (Year 8)
Professional Prompt Questions
Having read this article, what benefits are claimed from having a unifying faith, culture and belief system (across school, family, community)? How might a non-faith-based school generate an equivalent sense of unity?
What arguments might you make that there should or shouldn’t be faith-based SEND schools?
Critical Friendship Groups: Think ‘Fireside Chats’
Gesher School serves children who learn differently — many of whom have had highly stressful school experiences previously.
To do a brilliant job for these children, we want to be the best that we can be — the best in well-being, best in assessment, in project-based learning design and facilitation, in exhibitions, best community links, best staff development, best parent engagement, skilled in the use of technology and so on. Not best or better in any comparative way — just the best that we can be to serve the young people, adults and families who are part of our school community…
We need to be the most informed and intentional learning organisation that we can be.
To do that we need to be the most informed and intentional learning organisation that we can be, and one feature of that is to reach out to people who have relevant knowledge and experience to help us with dilemmas or ‘problems of practice’ and to debate with us key elements of our ambition. One strategy for this is Critical Friendship Groups.
Critical Friendship Groups (CFGs)
Gesher started as a primary school and is now an all-through school. For the first 18 months of its existence as an all-through school, it is emphatically in learning mode. We plan to harness the goodwill and professional generosity of the school’s multiple partners and connections to establish a small number of CFGs around key themes that are central to the school’s success.
At the time of writing we have held one CFG so far, on the theme of well-being, when we asked our critical friends:
How do you empower young people to manage and own their own mental and emotional well-being through adolescence and beyond school?
Eight people from backgrounds as diverse as the Anna Freud Centre and Place2Be, and as geographically spread as Bolton to Israel, met online for two hours to engage in a facilitated conversation, the outcomes of which will be featured in Issue 3 of The Bridge. We plan to share both a think-piece distilled from that session and also a tool or framework that might be of practical value to teachers.
Critical Friendship Group Objectives
There are four objectives to CFGs, which are:
- To connect Gesher with advanced practice and thinking around issues linked to the school’s ambitions, and to the needs of the SEND sector.
- To build relationships with people who have experience, knowledge and insights that can help to advance Gesher’s work and the work of the sector.
- To generate usable knowledge and ideas around key ‘problems of practice’.
- To create an informal space that allows people to engage and contribute to Gesher’s evolution.
We hope, of course, to learn a huge amount. And we plan to share the things that we learn which are of collective value through the journal.
For the moment, we offer up the idea of ‘fireside chats’ with a group of people who know stuff and who care about young people’s learning, as one that might have value for other schools.
In November, Gesher attended a reception to mark the 2nd year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, hosted by Elnet UK and the Board of Deputies, the keynote address was made by Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak.
Gesher’s blueprint and design principles have been informed by best practice from schools and learning communities all over the world including India, New Zealand, the United States and Israel. The school has been working with Elnet over the last year to highlight to central Government, in particular the SEND APPG, best practice in Israel in terms of teaching and learning and early identification of SEND.
With thanks to High Tech High for allowing us to share their student’s beautiful work
Understanding Habits of Heart and Mind Through Our Community
Second graders investigated the question, “How do Members of Our Community Show Care and Perseverance?” Throughout this project, students engaged in fieldwork to show care and perseverance within their community.
To begin, we brainstormed people who showed our Habits of Heart and Mind: care and perseverance. Next, we asked various experts to visit us to teach us about these traits and how they show this in their personal life and in their job. During the process of speaking with experts, students generated interview questions, took notes, and debriefed about what they learned. Finally, the students selected one member of their community who inspired them and taught them about our Habits of Heart and Mind. Students wrote creative biographies and created Norman Rockwell style artwork, developed through multiple drafts. These pieces of work were exhibited at a local non-profit art center in San Marcos called Charity Wings.
I was inspired and amazed at the efforts the students made to help their community. It was tremendously rewarding to see the outcome of our fieldwork as well as how accomplished the students felt. I hope that this project will be an inspiration for students to continue to help others outside of their school and persevere to make a difference in their community.”
My highlight of the project was going to the beach because we got to pick up trash.
My highlight of the project was getting to help the community.
With thanks to High Tech High for allowing us to share their student’s beautiful work.
The Superhero project explored what superhero qualities each student possessed and how these unique “superpowers” con-tribute to our classroom and school community. The students investigated fictional superheroes and found a common theme in their powers.
The students examined everyday superheroes in their community, learning about their different jobs and respon-sibilities. Each first grader considered the questions: What super qualities can you bring to better our community? How do super-heroes work together? Students designed and made a costume to represent their superpower. The children also created social stories featuring their superpower in a comic book format. The stories were then made into short films with the students role playing in their superhero costume. These films and the students’ experiences were then shared at a school gathering.
There were several things we loved about this project. An ab-solute highlight was the excitement in the children’s faces when they realized that everyone possesses a superpower and no mat-ter how old you are, you can make a difference. We often found them using their superpowers like Grit Girl, Thinking Man and Happiness Gal on the playground or during class time when no one was watching. At a table you would hear “Don’t give up, use grit!” when participating in a difficult math activity or “I’ll get a band-aid!” as Helpful Boy ran off to help a friend who had fallen down on the blacktop. It empowered the children to take owner-ship in making a positive change in their classroom and school.
The Superhero project taught me that I should help people and I should take big risks for the people I care for.
I learned that superheroes are real and help us everyday like po-lice officers and firefighters. Everyone is a superhero!
To learn more about this project and others,
Assessing What Really Matters
A conversation with Ron Berger
In March 2022 some staff and friends of Gesher School met with Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer at Expeditionary Learning. Ron is the author of 11 of the most valued books about educational leadership, learning and relationships in schools. We talked about what really matters when assessing young people, especially those who are ʻdifferently ableʼ, and what good assessment can mean for supporting happy, fulfilled and kind future generations.
Why aren’t traditional forms of assessment right for children?
The first thing I would say is that the most important assessment that’s happening in a school is never high stakes tests, or even interim tests, or even weekly tests. The most important assessment that’s happening in a school is what’s going on all day long, every day inside the heads of kids, because every kid in every school is assessing, all day long, how much she understands, how well she’s behaving, how much she wants to try, how good she feels about her identity – her academic identity and her personal identity. When she’s about to hand something in, she thinks, ʻIs it good enough?ʼ She’s in class and she thinks, ʻShould I raise my hand? Do I understand this stuff fully?ʼ When she looks at her personal relationships, she’s always assessing ʻAm I a good enough person?ʼ That kind of assessment is constant. It’s constant in all of us.
And that’s the kind of assessment that matters the most. Of course, we need to check in on kids’ skill levels sometimes, just like every year we should go in for a physical and make sure our body is working and that our vital signs are okay. And, if there’s something wrong in our annual physical, that’s something we need to attend to. But an annual physical tells us nothing about how to live a good daily life, right? It doesn’t give us feedback. We need to be our best selves academically and personally and physically. And it’s the lifestyle choices we’re making all day long about what we eat and how we eat and how much we sleep and how much we exercise and what our relationships are like with others that define whether we have a healthy lifestyle or not. And we are assessing that all day long.
We need to remember our kids are also doing that all day long in school. And so we need to build systems of assessment that encourage them to be their best academic selves and to be their best personal selves all day long, where they’re getting clear feedback from each other and from themselves about ʻHow am I doing? Do I understand this well enough? Can I show more academic courage? Can I take more academic risks? Can I put more effort into this? Can I take the risk of showing what I don’t understand? Can I step up for other people? Can I be a better person?ʼ
So, of course, we still need to have those interim assessments and quarterly assessments and annual assessments, just like we need to go to the doctors’ sometimes, but assessments that give us ways to monitor our own academic and personal health all day long are the assessments that will really make us better students and better people.
Gesher and Standardised Forms of Testing
Rowan Eggar, Assistant Head Teacher, in charge of assessment
One of the things that we are really struggling to navigate is the way our UK education system is built around the notion of standardized testing – which can be quite fixating.
We find that parents, especially those whose children have additional needs, use milestones like GCSE grades as a marker to show their child has made relevant progress, which is entirely understandable. But one of the things that we are trying to do at the moment at Gesher is to also support our parents and children to focus on life skills and the journey it takes to become fully fledged humans in society. You canʼt determine this from standard grades and scores.
We are looking at things like personal and emotional health, self-care, wellbeing, things that maybe our children struggle with more, and starting to build in assessment approaches that encourage them to check in with themselves, very similar to some of the questions that you mentioned, Ron. Lots of our students don’t yet have the toolkit to ask themselves those questions. So this type of assessment needs to be taught in a more obvious way than you might in a mainstream setting.
Loni and I are currently working with a few colleagues on an assessment tool that breaks down the national curriculum into small steps for whole-person assessment. One of the elements of this is around life-skills. Our SENDCO and Assistant have developed a ʻlife-skillsʼ programme, where our children get different badges, bronze up to platinum, depending on the life-skills they are building.
Whatʼs a bit more of a struggle is thinking about assessment for personal traits and character traits. Often our childrenʼs academic progress doesn’t really reflect who they are as people and how much they’ve grown. So, let’s say they’ve grown in confidence to be able to communicate, academic progress might not show that. Weʼre developing a tool that is about personality and character, but thatʼs a work in progress!
What advice would you give to a school embedded in the current assessment culture that wants to move to a new paradigm of thinking about assessment, one that focuses on the wholeness of the strengths and skills of children?
That’s a great question, because we are all under the same pressures.
I find it really interesting to hear what Rowan is saying about being a school
that’s working with differently abled kids, but there is still the same kind of
intense pressure around labelling and ranking that every other school
It’s pernicious and harmful for all kids, but it’s particularly harmful for kids
who always get ranked in a way that doesn’t make them feel positive, and
that doesnʼt focus on their personal identity as a student and as a person.
Imagine if, as adults, we got ranked every day in our life, and we were
always at the bottom of the rankings. What would that do to our spirit in our
work, in our lives as, as people?
I think anything that our schools, and particularly a school like Gesher that’s
working with differently abled kids, can do to keep ranking out of that
conversation is important, because being ranked low on any scale hurts
your spirit. It makes you lose your heart for investing and taking risks.
Kids are also aware of the way the world sees them and the kind of rankings
of the world. So being a school that lets kids know that those types of
rankings arenʼt their priority is really important. Schools should prioritise
and share work that focuses on what kids are learning, through portfolios,
projects, presentations – assessment approaches that celebrate different
types and styles of learning, building on the strengths and positives about
each childʼs learning.
But itʼs important that that type of assessment also shows kids where they
need to work on their challenges and the steps that they need to take next.
I think it’s fine for kids to be able to be honest about the things they struggle
with, whether those are personal things, executive functions, physical or
emotional wellbeing, as well as academic levels.
Ron shares a story here, which can be watched via the QR code at the end of the article, or link.
Ali Durban, Co-founder of Gesher School
I love that. I think as Rowan said, one of our biggest challenges is working in a system that both feels familiar and safe and also gives parents some kind of validation that their child is going to be okay in the world emotionally. Itʼs hard because our children havenʼt become adults yet, so we canʼt yet show that this way of learning and assessment is going to let them shine. Going on a journey like this is ultimately about trust.
Loni Berqvist, Project Based Learning Coach at Gesher School
We have a tendency to try to assess everything that we put value on. Is there a risk that we start to try to assess childrenʼs passions and the impact theyʼre having as humans, say, by creating portfolios that demonstrate the impact they are having on the world, which could kill the passion? How do we move to a place where weʼre comfortable with not having to assess things and demonstrate outcomes in the ʻnormalʼ way?
I love, Loni, where you went at the end of your question, “assess it in that traditional way”, because I actually think it’s fine to assess everything. If it’s a reflective and formative assessment, if it’s an assessment to help us learn and understand, and it’s not a ranking, judging, summative assessment, then I don’t think it’s bad.
I feel like kids and adults assess everything we do, right? If we watch a TV show, we assess it afterwards, we discuss, what did you like? If you put on a new outfit, you’re going to assess, do I look good in this?
You’re always assessing and making that assessment explicit and reflective and thoughtful and safe is fine. I don’t really worry about us assessing many things. It’s the way we assess them that matters.
But assessment in the traditional sense – where we need a summative number next to this, we need a letter next to it, we need a ranking next to it – is where we kill the spirit of assessment.
So, going to a silly metaphor, if you see a movie, it doesn’t diminish the movie to say, “Wow, that was amazing, where did it work for you? Where did it move you?” But what kills that passion and fun is asking, “Okay, of all the movies you’ve seen in the last three years, where does this one rank? And do you give it an 82 or do you give it a 65.”
That kind of assessment, where it has to be summatively labelled and viewed in a reductionist way, so that it could be ranked along with a set of other movies, stops it being fun to even talk about it. But assessing it qualitatively through reflecting in a safe way is something that we can do with all kidsʼ work and all kidsʼ stuff. They are always doing it anyway. It’s just making it more explicit: ”Let’s have a conversation. How are you doing with this?” Whether it’s a life skill, whether it’s emotional growth, whether it’s physical capabilities, or whether it’s academic doesn’t matter, kids can assess “I’m doing better at this, or I’m not doing better. Why?” That’s very different from saying, “We’re going to rank you. We’re going to give you this label”. That’s scary and threatening but assessing how you’re doing doesnʼt have to be.
Gesher is underpinned by Jewish principles. What does having that foundation bring when assessing children as whole people?
Well, in particular order for Gesher, there are three reasons why assessment that lifts the whole child and helps the whole child to feel like she’s growing into the kind of person and scholar that she wants to be are important.
The first of those is that it is a school particularly for differently abled students, which means they go through all of their life getting negative messages, telling them that they are not ranking as other people would. There are so many ways in which life is giving them the message that they are not good enough, whether it’s about their social skills, emotional skills, physical skills, academic skills. There’s a tremendous reason for Gesher to use an approach that gives kids power and pride in getting better at what they are rather than feeling diminished about who they are.
So having an asset-based vision of assessment at Gesher for that reason is extraordinarily important. Itʼs important in every school, but particularly important in a school that needs to lift kids who people have seen with a deficit lens, for so much of their life.
And the second reason it’s an important thing for Gesher, is that as a faith-based school, everyone who chooses to send their child to Gesher knows that there is more to life than academics. There is the human character of who you are as a human being. You choose to send your child to a faith-based school because your faith, your culture is something that matters to you, because you want your kids to embrace values that you care about. And those values mean being a good person. And so if the assessment systems diminish the kind of human beings we’re trying to create, they’re not good for us.
We need assessment systems that help our kids become more of the kind of people we want them to be. And so kids should be self-assessing and should be getting assessed for beyond their academics. It should be a holistic assessment system because kids should be proud to say, “This is the strength I have in this, and this is where I need to grow in my character.”
They should be able to say, “I’m focused on improving my courage, my passion, my respect, my responsibility, my kindness, my initiative, my integrity.” Kids should be assessing themselves and thinking about, “How do we become better human beings?”.
Itʼs scary for schools that are not faith based to say that because how do they choose which values theyʼre supporting? Will parents get upset, as they may not feel the values of the school are their values. For me, that’s a ridiculous cop-out and it’s just not real. I think almost all of us as human beings share values. What parent does not want their child to be respectful and responsible and courageous and kind and have integrity and honesty? No faith, no difference, no political party, no background makes you disinclined to want your kids to be a good person in those ways.
A third reason is that schools have no choice but to teach character. Schools are already teaching character all day long because the way kids experience school makes them more respectful or more responsible or more compassionate or less. So the experience of schooling shapes who kids are, and we’re doing it intentionally and well or haphazardly and poorly. In summary, a faith-based school has the opportunity to lean into these things and say, we’re going to do it intentionally and do it well because we want good human beings coming out of this school. And we’re not worried about talking about values because that’s partly why people choose to attend our school. So, for all those reasons, I think having an assessment system that elevates the whole person for every child is a perfect fit for Gesher.
Ron is responsible for leading EL Educationʼs vision for teaching and learning, bringing with him over 45 years of experience in education, 28 of those as a public school teacher.
Ron has authored 8 books on education: A Culture of Quality, An Ethic of Excellence, Leaders of Their Own Learning, Leaders of Their Own Learning Companion, Learning that Lasts, Transformational Literacy, Management in the Active Classroom, and We Are Crew: A Teamwork Approach to School Culture. He is a sought-after keynote speaker nationally and internationally, focusing on quality, craftsmanship, service, and character.
Ron works closely with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he did his graduate work and taught the course Models of Excellence, focused on using student work to improve teaching and learning. He founded the Models of Excellence EL website, which houses the worldʼs largest curated collection of high quality student work.
Professional Prompt Questions
- What purpose do your current forms of assessment serve for children as future citizens?
- How would you assess the life-skills that children are learning under your care?
- What values would you assess children for?
- Who would you need to convince to move away front he current assessment paradigm? Yourself? Parents? Colleagues?
- How could the above align with standard forms of assessment, such as GCSE results or OFSTED grades?
Ron Berger – Additional Content from Gesher School on Vimeo.
Turning a Seed of an Idea Into Reality – The Role of Philanthropy
Ever thought about what it means to turn the germ of an idea into something that creates real change in your community? We caught up with Kate Goldberg, Chief Executive at the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, to talk about the role of foundations and the advice they would give to those dreaming of change, including Gesher.
Thanks for your time today and for talking with us about the role that foundations can play in building communities and turning dreams into practice. To start could you describe a bit about the Wohl Foundation and the role you play in your community.
Thanks so much. Itʼs a real privilege to be involved in the work of Gesher and to be part of The Bridgeʼs first edition.
The Wohl Foundation is one of the larger funders of the Jewish community in the UK. We fund work across the education, social and welfare sectors, towards ensuring the sustainability of Jewish and communal life here in the UK.
The position of foundations is a very privileged one. We are quite niche, as we focus mainly on the Jewish community. Weʼre able to take a balcony view of our community and watch the dancers on the floor, but we also all live, work and engage within the community. I often think about the Leonard Cohen quote, “Thereʼs a crack in everything, thatʼs how the light gets in. ” We see our role as both to underpin the core infrastructure, as well as to find the cracks and fund the light, in the shape of new and dynamic projects.
We all have a role to play in developing our community and ensuring that it is the best of us and the best for us.
With that idea of ʻletting the light inʼ, what was it about Gesher School that made you want to invest in their dream?
When the founders, Ali and Sarah, came to us we’d been funding Jewish schools for some time as well as working in the field of special needs. They brought a solution that bridged a real gap. They had clearly defined their target market – who they wanted to set the school up for – and they had a clear rationale – why it was needed and why their idea was the solution to that need.We saw strong leadership, with the passion, vision and determination to turn the dream into a reality. They had (and still have) the ability to vision, and they had the grit to roll their sleeves up and get the job done.
They will be the first to say that they werenʼt a polished product when they approached you. What do you think it was that has helped them turn the seed of their idea into practice?
Before we met today, I looked back at my notes and actually they came to us with much more than just the seed of their idea. They had already developed a clear sense of what needed to happen to achieve their ambition and they had already spoken with one other key funder who was showing interest. They had a good group of experienced professionals around them, and an advisory and trustee board already set up. Finally, they were also in the process of bringing in more expertise to fill gaps in knowledge.
Having said that, they were not the polished article and we, my colleague Howard Stanton in particular, spent an enormous amount of time helping them refine their ideas, develop a business plan around that, and how to engage with funders, to ensure they could fulfil their dreams.
Would you give them any advice for how to continue meeting their vision?
I think itʼs really important that their voice is amplified.
They should focus on shouting more about what it looks like to create a school where children with mild or moderate special educational needs are aspiring and thriving. Iʼm not sure how much Gesher is recognised in the wider Jewish or the SEN community yet.
And how do you start to bring a community into your vision and the journey travelled?
So there’s something about timing, consciousness, and a shift that makes you pay attention. I think that Ali and Sarah captured the timing piece really well, but they need to dig deeper into the consciousness of the community. Itʼs probably a communications effort, which is why I was also glad to take part in this interview and to hear about The Bridge.
They’re very, very good at writing to donors. This should be translated into creating good news stories for others in the Jewish Press and wider.
This has been such an insightful interview, thank you so much Kate. One final question I would like to end on. What advice would you give to others who want to take their seed of an idea and turn it into change?
I would ask a few questions of yourself:
- Do you have an achievable vision, that is a crack of light?
- Do you have what it takes to deliver?
- Do you have the right governance and people with the right expertise in place to help you?
- Are they pushing you and most importantly challenging your thinking?
- Do you have a plan for sustainability?
If the true answer is yes, then go for it!
Kate Goldberg is the Chief Executive of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation.
A reflection from Gesher’s Co-Founder, Sarah Sultman, on the experience of mobilising the creation of Gesher School
Before we could go to any donors in the community we spent over a year researching the need in the community.
We began by hosting what were essentially ʼtrunk style eveningsʼ in local synagogues and around kitchen tables, where we invited people through Facebook and word of mouth, to come and hear about our plans and to gather people who wanted to get on board. It wasnʼt us dictating to the community our vision but more like sharing our ideas and asking them – what did they want in a school, did they have skills they could help us with.
We knew that ideas alone werenʼt enough to create a school. We needed an entire community of volunteers to freely give up their time and expertise to get the project up and running and we were fortunate to have met so many remarkable people who so enthusiastically wanted to get on board.
The first people that came on board were a retired lawyer and an accountant – we needed to register as a charity and to have some sort of an idea about the finances involved in setting up a school.
This very basic, crude, mind map is from 2014 but this was our starting position! This led us to meet all the people that came on board. It gives you just a small idea of all the different areas we have to find expertise in. We created a network with people introducing us to other people as well as cold calling.
I think our passion, determination and tenacity went a long way but really, once we were armed with the data and the numbers, it was obvious that this school was desperately needed. Most people didnʼt take that much convincing.
We have heard of many others wanting to set up a school and many of them give up before theyʼve really even started. It takes commitment, time and dedication. We thought we could do it in a year but it took us from 2013 – 2017 when our first pupils arrived at the school. There is no official ʻhow to set up a SEN school from scratchʼ manual. If there was, it might have saved us a year or two but equally we wouldnʼt have acquired the knowledge that we did by educating ourselves every step of the way.