Struggle to create a balance 50 years on;Briefing;International

1st May 1998 at 01:00
As the state of Israel marks it's half century Sue Surkes finds a modern education system comparable to the West.

In the week it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Israel can take pride in a modern education system that compares well with the West.

Like Britain and the United States, it has 11 years of compulsory schooling. Figures from UNESCO, the United Nations educational organisation, based on data from 1995, show that 41 per cent of young people in Israel are in higher education, compared with 18 per cent for neighbouring Egypt and Syria, 43 per cent for Germany, 35 per cent for the UK, and 50 per cent for France.

However, Israel is still grappling with problems rooted in the early years of the state as it struggles to balance the cultural, ideological and religious needs of a society made up of immigrants from all over the world.

In Politics and Policy-making in Israel's Education System, Haim Gaziel of Bar Ilan University traces the trends born of attempts to satisfy everyone.

He says education ministers have tried to reduce gaps in achievement between poorer pupils (usually of Asian or African descent) and the more affluent (usually of European or North American origin). Measures have included extra school hours and the introduction of integrated junior high schools.

But at the same time, they have protected the interests of advantaged populations, by making integration optional, permitting streaming in mixed schools, and the flowering of selective "magnet" schools and forcing parents to pay more for education. Israel has moved gradually from the socialism of the kibbutz to capitalist individualism. Benchmark testing has been tried (and dropped), open registration operates in some areas and commercial sponsorship in schools is openly discussed.

Growing friction in society between secular and religious Jews is deep-rooted. A Zionist tradition of sharing power for the sake of unity led to a form of coalition government with representatives of church and state and to a tripartite education system (for Jews) which allows a choice between state-secular, state-religious and independent ultra-orthodox schools.

An escalating cultural battle to define the character of Israeli society saw the late National Religious party education minister Zevulun Hammer move to strengthen religious values in secular schools. His NRP successor Yitzhak Levy, a right-wing rabbi, is expected to interfere even more.

Israel's Arabs and Druze - who account for a fifth of the country's 1.8 million pupils but study in separate schools for geographical, linguistic, cultural and religious reasons - have been allowed to lag behind their Jewish peers. Results of a nationwide maths test, released this month, show average scores of 60 per cent for secular 13 to 14-year-olds, 57 per cent for state religious pupils, and only 43 per cent for Arabs.

Despite peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an accord with the Palestinians, textbooks still reflect the stereotypes of a nation at war, according to a study by Tel Aviv University researcher Professor Daniel Bar-Tal.

Ephrat Balberg, a teacher at Jerusalem's Hebrew University High School, says society expects schools to deal with the after-effects of traumas such the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Teachers must also help to prepare senior sixth-formers for military conscription.

He added: "This school has existed since 1937. Sometimes, they'll point to the memorial plaque, which lists 100 names of fallen alumni, and say there's no room left for them on the board."

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