Earlier this week, our youngest child sat her final bagrut (matriculation) exam – signaling the end of an era for me and my family. Schooldays, and all that went with them, are finally, firmly behind us.
Having brought our three children from Britain to live in Israel at the ages of 10, 13 and 14, I’ve had the pleasure – and pain – of experiencing the schooling systems in both countries firsthand.
Now that all that is behind us, I’d like to share some thoughts.
The first thing that struck me was how different the two schooling systems are.
Manners and presentation are very important in British schools. Uniforms, comprising trousers or a skirt, a shirt and even a tie, topped off with a smart school blazer are not uncommon there.
In Manchester, for example, my children attended King David School from a very young age, starting in their nursery, or gan. When they went to infant school at the age of four, ties on elastic were compulsory for boys and girls.
Further, before they could even tie their own shoelaces (Velcro was a lifesaver), they learned how to line up quietly in the playground when the whistle was blown, as they waited for their teacher to escort them inside.
The same happened at lunchtime and at the end of the day. Waiting in line became second nature for these well-behaved, tiny tots.
This continued throughout their school years in Manchester. Orders, along the lines of, “tuck your shirt in,” were often barked at the children as they walked (running was strictly forbidden) along the corridors.
As rigid as it was, I had no problem with this schooling method. It all seemed very normal to me; desirable, even. Children need boundaries and order. Plenty of time for them to let off steam at home, which they did. From all points of view, I’d say I was a “fun-Mum.”
As I cast my mind back 30-odd years, I can recall similar demands being made on me and my school friends – more so in fact. I went to a private all-girls school where we even had to change from “outdoor” to “indoor” shoes as we entered the building.
Why are Israeli schools so different?
As you can imagine, it was quite a shock when we came to live in Israel.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with schools here, you may be surprised to hear that they take a somewhat more relaxed approach to manners and presentation. Uniforms are nonexistent (save for a t-shirt with the school’s logo on the front), and lining up in an orderly fashion in the playground while waiting for the teacher to appear just doesn’t happen.
In fact, the first time I ventured into my son’s high school, I was met with the appalling sight of a child lying on the floor as another launched a chair at him. The teacher who was showing me around simply tutted and stepped around the writhing bodies, encouraging me to do the same.
I was a little concerned, to say the least – how would my children adjust to their new school surroundings? In truth, so marked were the differences, it wasn’t easy for any of them. The language barrier also compounded the problem.
DESPITE ALL of this, as of this week, I can safely say that they have all managed successfully to complete this part of their lives.
While there may have been times when I’ve looked back wistfully at school photos from the early years, all of them smiling broadly for the camera in their pristine uniforms, I’m pleased they had the opportunity to complete their school years in Israel.
Although I have fond memories of my own school days in Manchester, for me, the final years were probably some of the most stressful of my life. A levels – the school leavers’ exams taken at 18 – dominated those years. So much rested on them; university places were often conditional upon attaining good grades.
And there were no second chances. If you failed, or your grades weren’t good enough, in all probability, you’d have to retake the whole year. Your peers would go off to university, leaving you behind to resit the year, in a class with younger kids. The humiliation, aside from anything else was reason enough to make sure you passed those exams.
And from what I can gather, it’s much the same now as it was then. Friends from the old country often bemoan the fact that their children’s exams are taking over their lives. Endless hours of study leave no time for anything else.
Israeli children, on the whole, also take their studies seriously, working hard in order to attain good grades with a view to – one day – going to university. This being the country of second, and third chances, however, means poor grades on leaving school don’t necessarily spell disaster. They can do it all again at some point in the future, without causing too much inconvenience.
For most school leavers here, the army is their most pressing concern. Starting adult life here doesn’t afford them the opportunity to pursue their own agendas.
Israeli youngsters are expected to put their lives on hold when they leave school, instead, spending a couple of years at least, serving their country.
For many, this is not an easy option; the dangers associated with some of the combat roles are very real and the stress of service in general often takes its toll on these youngsters. But it’s what we do here – and I believe we are stronger for it.
Embarking on adult life, by selflessly putting your country ahead of everything else, imbues a sense of belonging and camaraderie which can’t be matched.
Having been part of something bigger than themselves by completing their service, only then are our children free to embark on their own lives, follow their own paths and explore their own hopes and dreams, safe in the knowledge that they have made their mark, however big or small, on this country which I now call home.
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Israel where she works at The Jerusalem Post.