Children from two faiths find happiness in one building

Children from two faiths find happiness in one building

For The Times published Nov 11 2017

Have you heard the one about the Jewish school and the Catholic school that decided to share a building? It sounds like the beginning of an old, outdated and not very politically correct joke, but it is happening in Glasgow and the results so far are impressive.

The £17 million project, to bring St Clare’s Catholic primary school and Calderwood Lodge Jewish primary school under one roof, officially opened last week.

For the Catholic children wearing black blazers and Jewish children wearing blue ones, there was initially some degree of confusion, not to mention concern from the parents.

One little girl asked her mother after her first day at school: “There are children with blue blazers and children with black blazers in the playground. Who should I play with?” Her mother replied: “Just play with everyone.”

The school, in East Renfrewshire on the south side of Glasgow, is the first time that a Catholic and a Jewish primary school have come together. The benefits of the purpose-built complex can be enjoyed by 654 children across the two schools — 444 at St Clare’s and 210 pupils at Calderwood.

St Clare’s entrance features a picture of the Pope and Mass is celebrated in the gym. The Calderwood side has an Ark of the Law, mezuzahs — small cases containing a prayer from the Torah on the right side of each doorway — and a separate kosher kitchen for school meals.

There’s a shared staffroom, and a laughing pair of head teachers. St Clare’s Anne-Marie Absolom and Calderwood’s Marion Carlton say that so far their only disagreement has been whether to allow the children outside to play if the weather is wet. “I can’t send mine out if she’s keeping hers in,” Mrs Carlton says.

In the gym, divided by a floor-to-ceiling adaptable screen, St Clare’s and Calderwood children are having separate lessons. Giant “tree of life” murals, devised by the children, brighten the walls of the hub between the schools. The pupils also had a say in how the playground should look.

There is a shared atrium for future joint assemblies, and the head teachers say there is potential for joint events, citing an upcoming end-of-year pantomime and after-school activities.

At present the children are not taught together. Areas such as the art room, science lab and dedicated music rooms are used separately. However, this is expected to change.

The project was conceived by East Renfrewshire’s education authority in 2013 as an exercise in common sense. There was a demand for a new Catholic primary school in the area, and a need to refurbish Calderwood Lodge, whose building, which houses its nursery school, was becoming run-down.

Initially, the Jewish and Catholic communities had concerns about coming together, especially as both communities were worried that the strong ethos and identity they wanted for their children might be diluted. However, when it became apparent that the combined project would enable a higher standard of facilities than if there had been two separate projects, they started to accept it. At the same time, strong religious identity has been retained. “They wanted the same thing — and I think the two communities work well together. I think the new campus has added an extra dimension to the children’s identity,” says Rabbi Moshe Rubin, chaplain to Calderwood Lodge and minister of the nearby Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue.

Rabbi Yosi Bodenheim, who has three children in the primary school and one at the nursery, says: “Because of the mix of children there is a respect for religion, and many of the kids will go on to be ‘ambassadors’ for talking to other faiths.”

Monsignor Thomas Monaghan, the priest of St Cadoc’s Church in Newton Mearns, who provides pastoral care for St Clare’s, agrees: “This is not like sharing premises with any other school. They [Calderwood Lodge] have faith, and so do we. That’s why it works”.

Calderwood, despite having a “Jewish ethos”, does not have a 100 per cent Jewish intake. Scotland’s Jewish community has been declining for the past 20 years and Calderwood is 52 per cent Jewish. The rest, says Mrs Carlton, who is not Jewish, are “Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and children of no faith”.

She is used to integrating children; and the nursery school, now part of the new complex, with places for 50 children in the morning and 50 more in the afternoon, reflects that religious mix.

In Scotland there is a policy for nursery schools to be non-denominational, but there is a provision for parents to sign their children up for the “Jewish stream” at Calderwood nursery. A number of Muslim parents have signed up for this, not least because those children will be fed by the kosher kitchen, obviating concerns about halal restrictions.

So if someone asks you if you have heard the one about the Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs and children of no faith going to the same school, you can say yes and the punchline is that the experiment is working.

  • 11 November, 2017