Sharing is caring: In Scotland, Jewish and Catholic schools occupy same building

GLASGOW — Bishop John Keenan is half of the religious authority for a unique education project in Scotland. There, two primary schools, one Catholic and one Jewish, share a purpose-built campus.

“I think,” jokes Bishop Keenan, “that the relationships here have gone beyond interfaith dialog. As far as I can see, the dialog is in the bricks.”

St. Clare’s Catholic Primary and its Jewish counterpart, Calderwood Lodge, are housed in a brand-new building in the Newton Mearns suburb in the south of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. Plans were in the works for four years to open what is thought to be an international first, where two religious schools share the same premises.

The two schools are halfway through their first term and will open formally on November 8, in a ceremony due to be attended by both Keenan, who is the bishop of the Diocese of Paisley, and Britain’s chief Orthodox rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis.

The project grew out of an educational and municipal coincidence: Calderwood Lodge, founded originally in 1962 by the Zionist Federation, switched school districts after a municipal boundary change, and came under the authority of East Renfrewshire Council.

The school, the only Jewish school in Scotland, was physically located in Glasgow, once its supervising authority; but most of its pupils lived in East Renfrewshire.

By 2013, two things were apparent to East Renfrewshire’s education authority: There was an urgent demand for a new Catholic primary school in the area, and a decision was needed about Calderwood, whose building, which also housed its nursery school, was becoming increasingly shabby and run-down.

East Renfrewshire, said to run the best schools in Scotland, had to choose between investing funds in a building no longer suitable, or to do something really different by inviting two faith communities to share an innovative school building.

And so, after prolonged consultations with both the Catholic and Jewish communities, parents, teachers — and, unusually, the children themselves — East Renfrewshire shelled out £17 million, ($22.36 million) bought land which had once been owned by a dairy farmer, and built a beautiful, state-of-the-art school campus. There is a planned capacity for 210 pupils at Calderwood and 444 at St. Clare’s, reflecting the different demographics of Jews and Catholics in the area.

The new building, overlooked at the rear by fields of cows and sheep, is right across the road from Mearns Castle, the “feeder” high school for Calderwood Lodge’s children. St. Clare’s pupils go on to a separate Catholic high school, St. Ninian’s.

A blur of blue and black blazers

Outside in the playground there is a blur of black school blazers and blue school blazers as the children from the two schools run and jump about in their shared break-time.

Each school has a separate entrance. St. Clare’s features a picture of the Pope and a small altar for Catholic ceremonies. Keenan has already said Mass at St. Clare’s — which is a new school, created specifically for the new campus.

Over on the Calderwood Lodge side there is a display case of school trophies, mezuzot on each doorframe, and a kosher kitchen for the children’s school lunches.

No matter which entrance you start in, you come to the central hub of the building, a shared area which features giant murals of the tree of life, painted during the summer holidays by the children. In this space there is ramped seating which turns into a place for school assemblies or audience seats for drama. There are dedicated music rooms with wonderful acoustics and sound-proofing, and upstairs there is an enviably equipped art room and an adjacent science laboratory.

But so far — and the school staff acknowledge that this is a work in progress — there are no shared lessons. Instead, the children, who are taught in separate classrooms at each end of the building, use the facilities in turn, after timetabling — agreed on by a joint administration and the two principals — is worked out.

About the only thing that the children will share this term is an end of year school play and some after-school clubs. Just the same, in the gym, divided by a floor-to-ceiling screen, two sets of children had adjacent exercise classes — and it wasn’t immediately clear which group came from which school.

However, St. Clare’s and Calderwood Lodge are significant for another reason. Scottish law insists that nursery schools are non-denominational, and Calderwood has long had a flourishing and lively nursery.

A Jewish community in decline

Despite the “Jewish ethos” of Calderwood Lodge, Scotland’s Jewish community has been in decline for the last 20 years. At present the primary school — with a final capacity of 210 pupils — is only 52 percent Jewish. The rest of the children are “Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and children of no faith,” according to Marion Carlton, who has been the principal at Calderwood Lodge since 2014.

And, despite the fact that she herself is Catholic, Carlton strictly maintains the Jewish ethos of Calderwood and is well-versed in all the necessary religious terminology.

Carlton is well used to integrating children, and the mix of pupils in the primary school is mirrored in the nursery, which takes 50 three-to-five-year-olds in the morning and a further 50 in the afternoon.

Parents of children at the nursery school can sign up for the “Jewish stream” — and Carlton confirms that 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.

But Calderwood’s Jewish ethos is applicable to all its pupils, which means that the 48% of children who are not Jewish still learn Hebrew and attend Jewish subject lessons.

There is a bonus for parents in the new campus, since previously they were asked to pay a voluntary contribution to Jewish religious education classes. Now, as a faith school supervised by East Renfrewshire, those classes are paid for by the state, making Calderwood Lodge the only Jewish school in Britain where this happens.

And on the Catholic side, the religious education taught by St. Clare’s teachers is similarly funded by the municipality.

Anne-Marie Absolom and Carlton, the two schools’ respective principals, are plainly thrilled with their new campus, luxuriating in the shiny new classrooms and furniture and the free WiFi throughout the building. 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!” says Carlton.

Calderwood is twinned with a primary school in the northern Israeli city of Ma’alot, whose principal came to visit in the opening weeks of the school term and was, says Carlton with a grin, somewhat taken aback at the school uniforms.

“But all East Renfrewshire school children wear uniforms, so we sent him back to Ma’alot with a sample shirt and tie, to see how it would take,” Carlton said.

An ‘extra dimension’ to children’s identities

Both principals are both hugely proud of the complex.

“To have a place like this to work in every day, it’s just outstanding,” says Absolom. “We tell that to our staffs and to the children, and we feel they really appreciate it. Actually, we are amazed at how quickly the children have adapted.”

Rabbi Moshe Rubin, leader of the nearby Giffnock Synagogue and Bishop Keenan’s counterpart as the supervising religious authority for Calderwood, is equally enthusiastic.

“I think the new campus has added an extra dimension to the children’s identity. Initially, both the Jewish community and the Catholics had concerns. But both communities wanted a strong ethos and identity for their children, they wanted the same thing — and I think the two communities work well together.”

Monsignor Thomas Monaghan, the priest of St. Cadoc’s Church in Newton Mearns, who provides pastoral care for St. Clare’s, agrees with Rabbi Rubin.

“This is not like sharing premises with any other school,” he says. “They [Calderwood Lodge] have faith, and so do we.”

For a Jewish parent like Vicky Jackson, the new complex offers both delight and the hope that Jews from outside Scotland might be attracted to East Renfrewshire, with this inspiring new overhaul of Jewish and secular education.

Jackson, who has two daughters aged seven and five at Calderwood Lodge and a third just starting at the nursery, says, “My daughters loved going to school from the second they started here. The classes are small, the head teacher welcomes every child, the new building is bright and each school has its own identity.

“We are really lucky to have this campus and I hope it might attract people from outside Scotland who find the cost of living too high in London or Manchester,” she says.

Nicola Livingston is co-president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council. She is very happy with the new project.

“The school has always been at the very heart of the Jewish community in Glasgow and we were delighted to come together with our colleagues in the Catholic community to bring this ambitious and forward thinking plan to fruition,” she says.

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