Meet the headteacher heightening the mood at JFS

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Meet the headteacher heightening the mood at JFS

Michelle Rosenberg chats with Dr David Moody, the change-making headteacher at one of the world's oldest Jewish institutions.

Headteacher Dr David Moody with JFS pupils earlier this year
Headteacher Dr David Moody with JFS pupils earlier this year

“I’m looking forward to the summer holidays!” smiles Dr David Moody, who has spearheaded an extraordinary turnaround at Europe’s largest Jewish secondary school.

Under his leadership, JFS, which will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2032, has in just over 18 months progressed from being placed under ‘special measures’ to being named one of the UK’s top 10 schools. It’s a stunning transformation. The Times ranks the school, in Kenton, sixth in its annual list of comprehensives, with 87.8 percent of students achieving A-level grades between A* and B.

Moody, 44, took over at JFS in December 2021, becoming its eighth head teacher in just six years.

Dr. Moody with JFS pupils.

Holding a PhD in organic chemistry from Cambridge, he was previously head at Harris Academy Battersea for five years and a regional director overseeing 10 secondary schools for the Academies Enterprise Trust.

During his time at Battersea, he transformed it from ‘special measures’ to ‘outstanding’, and it too became one of the top 10 performing schools in the country. Now he’s repeated the feat.

Nine months before the head teacher joined JFS, the school was rocked by the tragic death of 14-year-old Mia Janin. The Year 10 student took her own life on 12 March 2021, one day after returning to the school at the end of the coronavirus lockdown.

Investigating JFS after Mia’s death, Ofsted found a series of failures, including that standards of education were unacceptable; that pupils did not observe “appropriate boundaries”; and that persons responsible for leading the school “are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement”.

Dr Moody at JFS.

Inspectors downgraded the school from ‘good’ to ‘unsatisfactory’ and said many students had been subjected to harsh bullying with little to no intervention from staff. A pre-inquest review hearing into Mia’s death, held in March this year, heard that her parents had raised concerns with staff about bullying.

So, where does JFS now stand in terms of mental health provision and pastoral care? “Safeguarding at JFS is the best I’ve ever seen it in my entire life,” says Moody. “Obviously it’s been one of the main focuses of the school over the past two years and the amount of resource that we are able to put into it is incredible when you look at a normal state school.”

JFS now has three full-time senior leaders, five full-time safeguarding officers, two full-time counsellors and five volunteer counsellors. Moody says that “at a time when the NHS is stretched, I think the school is in a really lucky position to be able to offer a lot of that internally.

“The attention to detail is exceptional. I want to go bed every night knowing that the school has done everything it can to stop anything like what’s happened in the past from happening again.

“We get a student who is a little off the pace in their maths lesson – someone picks it up, they talk to them, and they discover there is a problem at home. We get the family in and we discuss what extra support is needed.

“It’s the little changes in people’s behaviours that the school is picking up and hundreds of comments a day, many of which just add to a fuller picture, but when you unpick them, there are some there that really do allow you to get into someone’s life, by the simple fact that they may have looked a little tired in the morning.”

This is not just another job for Dr Moody, who has a four-year-old daughter with his wife, Sarah, and they are expecting their second child at the same time as they move to their new house in Beckenham, in Bromley.

Moody is clearly devoted to the school, its staff and pupils. Indeed, when Jewish News asks about his hobbies, he laughs and names two: “JFS and my daughters.”

Uniquely for the principal of a Jewish school with more than 2,000 students across the religious spectrum, he was christened but is agnostic. Jewish News suggests this is purely because he hasn’t yet had really good smoked salmon and remains hopeful when Moody admits that his favourite Yiddish word is nachas.

“I’ve sacrificed a lot of time with my family to be at JFS. I’m here at 6am, I leave at 9pm at night. The flipside is that I’m finding a new family at JFS, and I’ve not felt that as keenly at a school for a long time. The sense of community here far outstretches anything I’ve ever felt anywhere else.”

Dr. David Moody, head-teacher, JFS

When he started, there was “justifiably a lot of frustration and anger about where the school was at and that has given way to lots of positive emails. That’s a lovely thing, especially at this time of year, when the Year 11s have finished their GCSEs and the Year 13s have finished their A-levels.”

JFS has worked hard during the past 18 months to reshape its direction and reputation; some other schools have been in touch with it with regards to how it handles mental health issues.

“We always invite them in to have a look at our provision here. I’m humble by nature and want to make sure we’ve got it as well as we can. But I never want to purport ourselves as the experts as we’ve always got something to learn. There will always be people doing it better and I want to make sure we are learning from them.”

Looking ahead to September and the next academic year, he says the school is at “an exciting point”, adding: “We’ve got brilliant teachers and they’ll be able to do brilliant things in the school next year.”

He compares JFS with a lot of other schools of similar size, where “you’ve got maybe 40 trainee teachers” because the school “doesn’t have the funds to support the experienced staff that we have at JFS”.

Moody says the school recently ran a grandparents’ tea, noting that if he’d tried to put on an event like that in any other school where he’s worked he’d be “laughed out of the staffroom”.

Dr Moody.

“There is a huge desire from grandparents to come and look at the school,” he says. “It was really humbling to stand and listen to people’s stories about JFS over the past century and I got an idea of the depth of this place in the community.

“The loveliest thing about this community is how ambitious it is for its children and how much it cares about their success. I have never worked in a school like it before. It’s multi-generational care.”

Looking ahead to the 300th anniversary, where does he think the school will be? “By 2032 I hope we are one of the highest-performing schools in the country, that we are sustainable, free of our PFI (private finance initiative) contracts, we own our building, we own our future and we are a place of expertise when it comes to nurturing happy children who go on to lead successful lives.”

Dr. Moody at JFS

He thinks that in 2032 JFS will feel “ever more like a family. I would like to think that JFS has gone from a period of turmoil into a place where we can be important to the community and the broader community. When you think of the number of different synagogues and communities we have represented at JFS, I hope that we can bring them together under one umbrella.”

Moody says he knows what ‘outstanding’ teaching looks like.

“I think the staff are as excited as I am to explore the edges, the extremes of best practice in the country, so we’ve got that at JFS. All the noise has settled and you see the green shoots of lots of different positive things across the school.”

When I joined, I cut £1.2m-worth of staff within the first six months. I’m confident families haven’t experienced any difference in provision.

He is clearly excited about the autumn term. “We have an exceptional setup for September 2023 with a huge team of experienced teachers and breadth and depth that you don’t get at many schools.”

Obviously, that comes at a cost and Moody’s job is also to balance the school financially. “When I joined, I cut £1.2m-worth of staff within the first six months. I’m confident families haven’t experienced any difference in provision.”

There is, of course, the cost-of-living crisis, and with inflation “hitting every aspect of the country at the moment” the school is in “an unfortunate position in that we have a PFI contract, which is essentially a mortgage, which we have to pay until 2027. It’s inflation-linked, not interest-linked. So, when you’re seeing high inflation it’s deeply concerning to a school that has to pay a significant amount extra because of it.”

JFS School in Kenton, Harrow

This weekend the school is running a match-funding campaign.

“We’re not looking at parents to fund all of that,” continues Moody. “We’re working with the broader community to see if there are other avenues by which to receive some support.

“People think that JFS is bullet-proof in many ways – it’s been around for 300 years. I’m a cost-cutting head teacher and I always want to make sure that every pound is focused on hiring the very best members of staff. Over the course of the next four years, I want to make sure that we see out the mortgage. I just want to do a good job for the parents – that’s what I’m excited by.”

To support the crowd-funding campaign click here

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