Unique school is ‘a haven’ ... with Scottish head at helm

Former Wallacestone primary head teacher Margaret MacDonald
Former Wallacestone primary head teacher Margaret MacDonald

The last time Margaret MacDonald got a mention in The Falkirk Herald, she was looking forward to a happy, relaxed retirement.

Pictured with the smiling pupils of Wallacestone Primary, where she had been head for 22 years, she was looking forward to “taking it easy” – and she’d never even heard of Tabeetha School in Jaffa, Israel.

Tabeetha School in Jaffa Israel, owned and managed by the Church of Scotland

Tabeetha School in Jaffa Israel, owned and managed by the Church of Scotland

Three weeks later, her plans – and her life – changed utterly, when she received a telephone call from the Very Rev Albert Bogle, former minister of St Andrew’s Parish Church in Bo’ness, saying there was something she could help him with.

What happened next could not have been further from her retirement plans but, nevertheless, she said yes to the plea from the Church of Scotland to become head of its Tabeetha School for three months.

Tabeetha is unique – it’s the only school in the world that the Church of Scotland owns and manages.

And in a land that is deeply divided on religious lines, while it is a Christian community, the school has Christians, Jews and Muslims among its pupils.

The education it provides is also more than just about passing exams.

The school is described by its pupils as “a haven” from the troubled world outside.

“Here, if you’re Jewish, you go to a Jewish school, you speak Hebrew and you don’t learn about Islam or Christianity,” said Margaret.

“It’s the same if you’re Muslim, you speak Arabic and learn about Islam but you don’t learn what it’s like to be with each other.

“Children who go to Tabeetha get taught in English, which is a common language for everyone.

“We’re here for parents who want something different for their children.

“Yes, it is a Christian school but it’s for parents who want their children to know what the world is like and that they don’t have to be separate.”

With just 24 places and 71 applicants, hard decisions have to be made every year.

Some of the pupils are private, providing funds for local children to get places.

Margaret was called over because the head teacher had left suddenly. The plan was that she would hold the fort for a few short weeks until a local candidate had been appointed. But, the trouble was, no suitable candidate could be found.

So Margaret found herself living in Israel and unable to leave a school that so badly needed her.

“It still feels really surreal to go to a meeting in Bethlehem or Jerusalem!” she said.

When she shows pictures of the school, however, what she wants to emphasise is “in lots of ways it’s just a school like any other”, with smiling pupils taking part in a wide variety of lessons and trip.

She has become fiercely proud of the school and would like more people to know about it.

So this week, Margaret is making a short visit home to Bo’ness (when Tabeetha has half-term holiday) and on November 7, she will be speaking to members of Falkirk Presbytery.

In fact, she’s happy to talk to anyone about the school and it’s pupils.

“Cash is really welcome but I also want to raise awareness,” she said.

Perhaps ironically, Margaret is not a member of the Church of Scotland.

She and her husband David are both members of Bo’ness Apostolic Church and she is grateful for all the support the small congregration gives her.

However, she does see her work at the school as “a sort of calling” and has pledged to continue for the next two years, when she hopes the continuous professional development she’s put in place will be well established.

She’s also worked on creating school values that are bringing everyone even closer, particularly the primary and secondary departments.

“I think there really needs to be a local head teacher,” she said. “ I don’t think it’s the way forward to keep bringing heads from Scotland.

“I’ll continue to be involved and give advice but I do think it should be someone local.”

Margaret also hopes the links between Scotland and Tabeetha will remain strong.

“I’m hoping to bring a couple of pupils over next year,” she said. “They are the ones who really sell the school and everything that’s good about it.

“In Scotland, if you get a visitor, you pick the children you know will talk to them and prime them.

“In Tabeetha, you don’t have to say a thing! The children just naturally go up and tell people how much the school means to them!”