Everyone can, and more will

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Sue Surkes reports from Israel on an award-winning scheme which aims to revolutionise school performance

In Israeli minds, Yeruham is a symbol of failure; a sink town characterised by high unemployment, social problems and despair. Yet, away from the spotlight, the town has spearheaded an educational revolution which could serve as a model countrywide.

Yeruham - home to 9,000, and located three hours south of Jerusalem, in the Negev desert - is one of 30 so-called development towns set up in the 1950s and 1960s to populate peripheral areas and accommodate immigrants from Europe and Islamic lands.

At that time, the towns were so basic that the Zionist authorities brought the newcomers in at night - they were less likely to revolt on arrival, and demand to be taken elsewhere.

Since then, most of the Europeans fled to more favoured towns, leaving a rump population of large, poorly-educated families, mainly from north Africa.

Yeruham's revolution - recognised by an education ministry prize - is being led by a young, dynamic, and largely home-grown municipal team.

In 1995, when Arye Maymon, now 33, became education director, only 19 per cent of senior sixth-formers in the only (and therefore non-selective) high school passed university entrance exams.

Staff turnover was high, initiatives were launched and then abandoned, and neither parents nor pupils had faith in the system. Only one year later, 55 per cent passed; two years later, nearly 57 per cent. The nationwide pass rate in 1997 among all Jews in school was 50 per cent.

Versions of Everyone Can, the programme which turned things around, are already being implemented in other development towns.

Everyone Can was designed by educational sociologist Nissim Cohen, within the framework of a government attempt to help pupils in 30 towns.

Maymon, and Mayor Moti Avisrur, decided on emergency action that would focus on senior sixth-formers first. They reckoned that improved matriculation results would act as a trigger for motivation throughout the system.

A committee, chaired by the mayor, and dubbed Yeruham's "educational government", was established to oversee education. It covers municipal staff, educators, inspectors, parents, pupils, and a representative of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

First steps included replacing the high-school principal, weeding out poor teachers, and abolishing non-matriculation exam courses in hairdressing, carpentry, and metalwork. Youngsters expelled for bad behaviour were dragged back to school. Those with potential, who had been shunted into special education, were returned to the mainstream.

Central to the new regime was "the mapping of every child". An assistant was attached to each class to work with small groups, and personal co-ordinators were assigned to every 15 pupils. The co-ordinator's job was to track every detail of every child's life: to find out why a maths result was poor; to visit the home if a child didn't come to school; and to report difficulties to the education department. "Everybody knew that someone was watching," Maymon said.

Pupils were tested regularly, after intensive preparation, to get them used to success. After the end of the school day, they'd stay until 10 or 11pmt, and do further exercises under supervision. And three days before the exams, the entire group was taken out of town for last-minute cramming.

Maymon said the municipality had to seek out every conceivable source of funding; to convince government officials that it was better to invest in education now, than in unemployment and welfare payments later on. As a result, Yeruham's education budget has grown by 30 per cent over three years, while the municipal contribution has actually decreased. And success has bred success. A small article in a newspaper led to a six-figure donation from an individual overseas.

Today, elements of the programme are being implemented throughout the system, starting at kindergarten, and successful graduates are coming back to help. This coming year, the vocational stream, which does not lead to matriculation, will no longer exist, and all senior sixth-formers will enter for the full certificate exams. In time, it is hoped that more students will take papers that could get them into the more prestigious university courses.

Maymon says those involved in the project still have to fight groups who are resistant to change. The middle-school sector's woeful image drives at least half of Yeruham's children to schools out of town.

Maymon, whose parents emigrated from Tunisia, was one of 10 children growing up in a small house in a poor neighbourhood in nearby Beer Sheba. "I could succeed because my parents were strong, despite lack of Hebrew, economic problems, poor education, and stigmas.

"We in Yeruham are the only ones who have proved that we can bring kids who have failed all their lives to a higher level of achievement than those in academic streams elsewhere. Those who got the best results in maths last year had been stuck in the metalwork class before we abolished it. When I heard that, I cried.

"If a kid believes that he's destined for the vocational stream, and a labouring job, he doesn't see any need to study. The key is to give that child the choice. As a result of our programme, Yeruham will lead a social revolution in this country."

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