With the formation of a new government just beyond the horizon, the soon-to-be appointed education minister will step into the role already facing a multitude of mounting pressures and challenges to the Israeli education system.
Gideon Fisher, head of the National Parents’ Association in Israel, recently sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the main issues and concerns that are expected to face students, teachers, parents and whoever takes up the position of education minister.
Fisher, a renowned attorney and father of five who has headed the association for the past three years, said he believes the Education portfolio is one of the most – if not the most – important in the government.
“If you want to do one thing for the future that was worthwhile in this world, you should do it in education, because there you will have the maximum impact,” he said, expressing hope the incoming minister will be one who is passionate about the education system.
“The first challenge for the new minister will be to decide whether to yet again implement reforms or alternatively to try and stick with any of the previous minister’s reforms and try to introduce some stability in the [education] system,” he said, referencing the many initiatives former education minister Shai Piron introduced during his nearly two-year term.
Piron’s “Meaningful Learning” platform included changing the requirements for matriculation certificates and canceling the psychometric exam.
“This will be one of the main decisions for the ministers and there are implications either way,” he said.
“So teachers, parents and students are all eagerly waiting to see what will be the line of the new minister.”
One of the most pressing concerns, he said, is the overcrowding of classrooms.
The association even conducted a professional survey among parents and found that every second parent said the number of pupils per class was the most problematic issue in today’s education system. There were numerous protests held over the past year on the issue – including strikes – backed by the association.
According to the latest OECD reports, Israel has one of the highest rates of pupils and students per classroom, falling far behind the OECD average of 21 pupils per class – leaving it in line with countries like Chile, Japan and China.
“Piron set up a committee to address the issue, which we were a part of, and the decisions we reached were that the government must reduce the amount of pupils up to 32 in a class,” said Fisher – down from the current 40. But by the time the committee was ready to submit the results to Piron, he had resigned from his post and the issue was put on hold awaiting the new minister. Fisher said Michal Cohen, director-general of the Education Ministry, promised this would be the first matter addressed once the minister was installed.
Another major issue is the full implementation of the amended Compulsory Education Law of 1949, under which the state is responsible for providing “free compulsory education” to all children aged three through high school.
“Parents are supposed to have free education, but we know that it is everything but free,” said Fisher. He said the costs shouldered by parents often include books, supplies, extra afternoon hours or even basic child insurance, and can add up to billions of shekels per year.
“Every minister for decades says he is aware of the [Compulsory Education] Law,” said Fisher, “But they continue to breach the law and say that one day somehow it will work – but in the meantime parents keep on paying.”
He said he is hopeful that the new minister “will be able to stand up to the prime minister and say: ‘With all due respect to defense and security problems, the most important thing on earth is education, so please allocate a few extra billions of shekels so that I can ensure that the law – for the first time ever – is observed.’” On top of these serious issues is the makeup of school curricula within the education system.
“One of the major [parental] rights that has not been exercised of yet ever,” Fisher told the Post, “is the right to influence up to 25 percent of the pedagogic syllabus.”
According to Fisher, the association recently compiled and published a booklet of parental rights which they distributed to parents at preschools and schools throughout the country.
“Most parents are not even aware of their own rights,” he said, “and we believe that knowledge is power – when you know your rights you gain confidence and security.”
According to the Education Ministry website, the State Education Law of 1953 determines the guiding principles with regard to the content and procedures of state education.
This law also enables the education minister to approve “at the request of 75% of the parents, an additional institutional curriculum comprising up to 25% of the existing curriculum,” or an additional curriculum financed by either parents or the local authority.
“This is amazing and the parents are not even aware of it,” he said. “We are planning on conducting a survey among parents asking them what they believe should be on the syllabus. We are going to exercise this right, and we are waiting for the new minister [to do so].”
Fisher added that everything the association wishes to accomplish “will be done by way of dialogue and discussions in an amicable manner – not by confrontation [with the new minister]. He said the parents’ association hopes to present its agenda and concerns to the minister within the first 100 days of his or her tenure.
“We want to be in a position that the new minister knows exactly what our rights are and to know what he or she is willing or able to execute,” he said. Fisher said parents want to feel as though they are part of the decision-making process, rather than just being informed as to what was already decided.
He expressed hope the incoming minister would have a “proper educational or professional background” and provided praise to both former education ministers Gideon Sa’ar and Piron, who he said, “always gave the feeling that we were included and gave the feeling that an idea would not be crystallized until they discussed it with us.”
“If the new minister will bear with us and will appreciate the fact that we are partners that we can help,” he said, “this is something that will be highly appreciated