Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition government has announced that it will slash the next financial year's budget by 3. 2 per cent. The education ministry - now in the hands of National Religious party head Zevulun Hammer - stands to be the fourth biggest loser, after child allowances, defence, and health.
Some Pounds 81 million (around 2 per cent) will be cut from the education budget, if the proposals are passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. About Pounds 3.9 million will also be shaved off spending during the current calendar year.
Shai Lachman, chairman of the National Parents' Association, has warned that parents might disrupt the start of the next school year if the cuts harmed education, particularly if pupil-teacher ratios and hours are hit.
But the ministry's new director general, Ben-Zion Del, told The TES that the savings would be made in more peripheral areas. While the school day would not be lengthened, "not one hour will be cut from now until July 1998".
He added he could not comment on remarks in the press that 50,000 hours would be cut in the school year 199899, saying this was too far off, and no decisions had been made.
He said efforts would be made to strengthen subjects such as science and technology and Jewish Studies and added that there was no intention of raising parental contributions. Although education is supposedly free, parents have had to pay up to Pounds 650 per child over the past year for books, trips and extra-curricular activities. The average monthly wage is Pounds 930.
Mr Del said the cuts of the next two years would include freezing a classroom building programme. The ministry plans to apply to the state lottery for funds to make up the difference. The budget for renovations would be cut by a quarter, 30 planned sports halls would not be built and assistance towards installing air-conditioning in classrooms would be scrapped.
The budget for school-based in-service training would be cut by more than half, and while special education would not be harmed, the number of adults accompanying handicapped children on buses would be reduced where possible.
Funding on the basis of pupil numbers would continue in high schools. But it would be re-evaluated in middle schools, where a one-year pilot has just come to an end, following which the ministry would decide if the pilot is to be continued or expanded to elementary schools.
Developments in this area will be keenly watched: classes in the state religious school sector, closely identified with the National Religious party, tend to be similar than those in the state secular sector. Per capita funding therefore tends to benefit secular schools.
Mr Del also said the ministry would support plans by the previous administration to launch a countrywide pilot project to hand financial control to elementary schools. The pilot will give heads and governing bodies control over hiring and firing teachers, maintenance and developing subject specialisms.
School principals were central to the success of each school, Mr Del emphasised, adding that they might find themselves rewarded in the next pay round.
The director general pledged that teacher numbers would not be cut, but would not discuss teachers' salary rises, or introducing personal contracts. He favours the latter, but said it was a matter for consultation with the unions.
However it is the cuts which have been in the media spotlight. The biggest government savings will come from the introduction of means-tested child benefits. Other initiatives include a school health charge to help cover costs such as vaccinations, and the introduction of fees for visits to the doctor.
Ofra Dunsky, deputy general secretary of the Histradrut Teachers' Union, was reluctant to comment until the union had been officially informed of the cuts planned, but expressed concern over prevailing PTRs, and emphasised the importance of air conditioning for pupils' concentration.