Barak looks to left for radical change;Briefing;International

9th July 1999 at 01:00

Expanding pre-school facilities, boosting democracy education and closing gaps in achievement between rich and poor pupils will be among the priorities of Yossi Sarid, Israel's new education minister.

Mr Sarid heads the left-wing Meretz Party, which on Sunday agreed to join the coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Mr Sarid, a former environment minister and prominent peace campaigner, spent three years in the 1970s volunteering as a teacher in a northern sink town.

Mr Sarid's appointment promises radical change after the National Religious Party's control of education since 1977 - a stint broken only when Meretz headed education under Yitzhak Rabin from 1992 to 1996. The past three years of NRP control have seen general stagnation coupled with favoritism towards religious institutions. For example, while the budget for the body responsible for state religious schools (which educate a fifth of Jewish children) grew by 69 per cent this year, funds for science an d technology were cut by 19 per cent.

Mr Sarid is expected to invest heavily in education in poorer areas, strengthening the direction taken by his Meretz predecessor. Professor Amnon Rubinstein sent teams of experts into 37 disadvantaged areas to work with local educators on improving the system, from kindergarten to senior sixth form. He also launched initiatives to help weaker students pass matriculation exams.

Also on Mr Sarid's priority list will be improvements in the Arab sector, which consistently lags behind Jewish schools, and fulfilment of a Barak campaign promise to provide free education from the age of three. He will also work to replace the orthodox monopoly over religious education with a more pluralistic approach in secular schools, in which 70 per cent of Jewish children learn.

His efforts will be driven both by a sense of social justice and a determination to stem the growth of Shas, an ultra-orthodox party, whose meteoric rise to 17 parliamentary seats in the recent elections owes much to its network of kindergartens and schools. Shas operates in the poorest areas, offering parents incentives such as low fees, hot lunches and long days at pre-school facilities. Pupils get a diet of religious orthodoxy, although technology and foreign languages are being introduced in response to parental pressure a realisation that children will need skills to work.

Mr Sarid initially refused to serve alongside Shas in a Barak-led coalition, citing moral standards. Earlier this year Shas leader Arye Deri was fined and sentenced to four years in jail for bribery, but held on to his position - pending a forthcoming appeal at the Supreme Court - until only recently, when pressure to resign became too great. The council of the avowedly secular Meretz party approved joining the coalition after a stormy debate.

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