Educational gaps growing in Israel

By Nathan Jeffay, May 26, 2011
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New education league tables in Israel indicate that there is a growing gap between the level of education received by students in poor and wealthy areas.

Given the strong socialist-Zionist ethos in the early decades of Israeli statehood, the country's education system was avowedly public.

Citing the traditional Jewish emphasis on education and the Zionist value of helping immigrants from across the globe to live and earn in Israel, the country's leaders presented education as the key to creating an equal society.

But in the Education Ministry's latest tables on pass rates for end-of-high-school exams, the ten towns that fare the best are wealthy and in the centre of the country, while at the bottom of the table are 150 poor towns, most of which are in the periphery.

The increase in pass rates are almost entirely in the rich areas.

The statistics show that while five per cent more students are passing than five years ago, the increase was almost entirely concentrated in wealthy areas.

Since Israel joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) a year ago, the group has released a string of figures pointing to growing social gaps in Israel.

According to its calculation, the gap between the standard of living in Israel and that of the lowest tenth of the population was three times higher than the OECD average. Some experts believe that the new Education Ministry figures challenge the accepted wisdom in government that the education system can serve as the antidote to the social divide.

This expectation of education has been particularly strong since major cuts in welfare spending in 1985 and 2003.

"If these education statistics show the direction that things are taking, I don't think the social gaps are going to be closed," said Yotam Hotam, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa.

Shlomo Swirski, academic director of the Tel Aviv think tank the Adva Centre and author of a report on education gaps released earlier this year, said that the growing inequality is explained by schools' growing dependence on parental contributions.

In 1985 the government abolished the rule that tuition must be entirely funded by the state, and permitted schools to ask parents for money to contract teachers to provide extra classes.

In the past decade, the amounts requested from parents in wealthy towns have increased steadily, in some places reaching £300 per child per month. However, in poor towns, parents are unable to find those sums.

"The situation is bad for the education system because it allows parents with clout to turn part of the education system into exclusive schools, said Dr Swirski.

Last updated: 12:54pm, May 26 2011