Israel is a complex multi-cultural society, a fact that is reflected in its sophisticated educational system. This is an article in two parts: Part I explores education for children, while Part II explores adult and higher education. This article is reprinted with permission from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
“The very world rests on the breath of a child in the schoolhouse” (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat, 119b).
Education in Israel is a precious legacy. Following the tradition of past generations, education continues to be a fundamental value and is recognized as the key to the future. The educational system aims to prepare children to become responsible members of a democratic, pluralistic society in which people from different ethnic, religious, cultural and political backgrounds coexist. It is based on Jewish values, love of the land, and the principles of liberty and tolerance. It seeks to impart a high level of knowledge, with an emphasis on scientific and technological skills essential for the country’s continued development.
When the State of Israel was founded (1948), a fully functioning education system already existed, developed and maintained by the pre-state Jewish community, with Hebrew–which had been revived for daily speech at the end of the 19th century–as the language of instruction.
However, since shortly after the establishment of the state, the education system has faced the enormous challenge of integrating large numbers of immigrant children from over 70 countries–some coming with their parents, others alone–thereby fulfilling Israel’s raison d’être as the historic homeland of the Jewish people. The mass immigration of the 1950s, mainly from postwar Europe and Arab countries, was succeeded in the 1960s by a large influx of Jews from North Africa. In the 1970s, the first sizable immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union arrived, followed intermittently by smaller groups.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union have come to Israel, with many more still arriving each year. In two mass movements, in 1984 and 1991, almost the entire Jewish community of Ethiopia was brought to the country. Over the years, many Jews from the Americas and other western countries have also settled in Israel.
In addition to meeting urgent demands for more classrooms and teachers, special tools and methods have had to be developed to help absorb youngsters from many cultural backgrounds into the school population. Programs designed specifically to meet the needs of the newcomers include preparation of appropriate curricular aids and short-term classes to introduce immigrant pupils to subjects not learned in their countries of origin such as the Hebrew language and Jewish history. Special courses were initiated to train teachers to deal with immigrant youngsters, and retraining courses for immigrant teachers have facilitated their employment in the education system.
At the same time, the Ministry of Education is involved in an ongoing process of bringing educational standards in line with modern pedagogic practices such as mandating gender equality, upgrading teacher status, broadening humanistic curricula and promoting scientific and technological studies. A key aspect of its policy is to provide equal opportunities in education for all children and to increase the number of pupils passing matriculation examinations.
Educational Television (ETV), a unit of the Ministry of Education, produces and broadcasts scholastic programs for use in school classrooms and educational programs for the entire population. In addition, ETV collaborates with education professionals at universities and teachers’ seminars in developing new teaching methods. Dedicated to providing “lifetime learning,” ETV gears its production to people of all ages through enrichment programs for preschoolers, entertainment programs for youth, educational courses for adults and news broadcasts for all. ETV is aired on two channels, six days a week, for a total of some ten hours daily.
Education in Israel begins at a very young age in order to provide children with an augmented “head start,” particularly in terms of socialization and language development.
Many two-year-olds and almost all three- and four-year-olds attend some kind of preschool framework. Most programs are sponsored by local authorities, some within day-care centers operated by women’s organizations; others are privately owned. The Ministry of Education allocates special resources for preschool education in disadvantaged areas.
Kindergarten for five-year-olds is free and compulsory. The curriculum aims to teach fundamental skills, including language and numerical concepts, to foster cognitive and creative capacities and to promote social abilities. The curricula of all preschools are guided and supervised by the Ministry of Education to ensure a solid and well-rounded foundation for future learning.
Primary and Secondary Education
School attendance is mandatory from age 6 to 16 and free to age 18. Formal education starts in primary school (grades 1-6) and continues with intermediate school (grades 7-9) and secondary school (grades 10-12). About nine percent of the school population post-primary attends boarding schools.
The multi-cultural nature of Israel’s society is accommodated within the framework of the education system. Accordingly, schools are divided into four groups: state schools, attended by the majority of pupils; state religious schools, which emphasize Jewish studies, tradition and observance; Arab and Druze schools, with instruction in Arabic and special focus on Arab and Druze history, religion and culture; and private schools, which operate under various religious and international auspices.
In recent years, with the growing concern of parents over the orientation of their children’s education, some new schools have been founded, which reflect the philosophies and beliefs of specific groups of parents and educators.
Most hours of the school day are devoted to compulsory academic studies. While the subject matter to be covered is uniform throughout the system, each school may choose from a wide range of study units and teaching materials, provided by the Ministry of Education, which best suit the needs of its faculty and pupil population. With the aim of enhancing pupils’ understanding of their society, each year a special topic of national importance is studied in depth. Themes have included democratic values, the Hebrew language, immigration, Jerusalem, peace and industry.
Education for Exceptional Children
Gifted children, who rank in the top three percent of their class and have passed qualifying tests, participate in enrichment programs, ranging from full-time special schools to extracurricular courses. A classroom for the gifted is characterized by the level of its students and its studies, with emphasis not only on imparting knowledge and understanding, but also on applying the concepts mastered to other disciplines. Children in these programs learn to research and handle new material independently.
Children with physical, mental, and learning disabilities are placed in appropriate frameworks according to the nature of their handicap, to help them eventually achieve maximum integration into the social and vocational life of their community. Thus some are taken care of in special settings, while others attend regular schools where they may be assigned to self-contained groups or to mainstream classes with supplementary tutoring. Responsibility for their well-being is shared by health care personnel, psychologists, social workers and special education professionals, as well as by the family and various community support groups. A committee constituted by law and appointed by the Minister of Education determines the eligibility of handicapped children for special education programs and facilities, which are free from age 3 to 21.
The majority of secondary schools offer academic curricula in science and in the humanities leading to a matriculation certificate and higher education.
Certain secondary schools offer specialized curricula which lead to a matriculation certificate and/or vocational diploma. Technological schools train technicians and practical engineers on three levels, with some preparing for higher education, some studying towards a vocational diploma and others acquiring practical skills. Agricultural schools, usually in a residential setting, supplement basic studies with subjects relating to agronomy. Military preparatory schools, in two different settings, train future career personnel and technicians in specific fields required by the Israel Defense Forces; both programs are residential, one open to boys only, the other is coeducational. Yeshiva high schools, mainly boarding schools, with separate frameworks for boys and girls, complement their secular curricula with intensive religious studies and promote observance of tradition and a Jewish way of life. Comprehensive schools offer studies in a variety of vocations, ranging from bookkeeping to mechanics, electronics, hotel trades, graphic design and more.
Youth not attending one of the above schools are subject to the Apprenticeship Law, requiring them to study for a trade at an approved vocational school. Apprenticeship programs are provided by the Ministry of Labor in schools affiliated with vocational networks. Lasting three to four years, these programs consist of two years of classroom study followed by one/two years during which students study three days a week and work at their chosen trade on the other days. Trades range from hairstyling and cooking to mechanics and word processing.