Israel, UK team up to improve English education

Israel, UK team up to improve English education

New initiative will provide more training for teachers in Israel, but critic says the program won't address fundamental issues

Illustrative photo of an Israeli classroom (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli classroom (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The Israeli education minister and his British counterpart signed a cooperative agreement Tuesday aimed at providing more training for English teachers in Israel, the Education Ministry announced Wednesday.

The initiative is not, however, expected to lead to a sea change in English-language instruction in the country.

As part of a five-year curriculum, the British Council has developed the Routes to Excellence program by which English teachers in Israel can take courses that will “improve their teaching and teacher training skills,” according to the council’s website. The program will include seminars and teacher training, and it will provide “skills for the English language tailored for the 21st century,” according to a statement from the Education Ministry.

The program does not constitute a major shift in Israel’s English education curriculum, but it will provide teachers with important resources, including language courses for teachers who feel they need to improve their skills, according to Chief Inspector for English Language Education Judy Steiner.

“We aren’t expecting a great improvement in students’ English specifically from this program, but we believe that better trained teachers with more tools they can use in the classroom will result in better teaching,” she told The Times of Israel.

Galit Toledano-Harris, the head of the Youth Renewal Fund, said that while the program may have a positive overall impact, something is amiss if the Education Ministry has not “set a clear vision of what they would like to see from the program at the end of five years.”

The Youth Renewal Fund is an Israeli NGO that, according to its website, “seeks to empower students on the geographic and social periphery of Israel.” In October, the organization released a poll showing that less than one in five English teachers in Israel speak English at a mother-tongue level, and that only half have a degree in English, and only 13% of teachers polled said they believed the level of English instruction in Israel was “high.”

To Toledano-Harris, this cooperative program with the British is another example of the Education Ministry dumping more work on teachers without targeting the real issues in the system and addressing what the teachers truly need in order to be more successful.

“Training is important, and the British council is great — I’ve worked with them before and have a lot of respect for them, but I don’t think that more training on its own can solve the problem,” she said. “Training happens outside the classroom, but the actual teaching happens inside the classroom.

“I think there needs to be more communication between the Ministry of Education and teachers about what they think is missing and what they actually need to succeed in the classroom. Let’s try recruiting motivated teachers to be part of the change,” she urged.

Steiner agreed that if there is a major problem with proficiency in the education, then “just giving courses is not going to solve the problem,” but for some teachers it could make a big difference.

Meanwhile, the Israeli and British education ministries both hailed the agreement as an opportunity to strengthen ties between the two countries while improving education.

“Cooperation will strengthen the relationship between the two countries and contribute to advancing the education systems in Israel and Britain through sharing knowledge, teaching methods and curricula,” Education Minister Shai Piron said.

“I am delighted to sign this agreement,” British Education Secretary Michael Gove said. “It will go a long way to increase the number of English-language teachers in Israel. More qualified teachers means more Israeli children leaving school able to understand English.”

Despite the undoubtedly good intentions on the part of the Education Ministry, Toledano-Harris does not share its hopes.

“If it’s just more training for teachers… then I don’t think it makes much difference. What’s the vision of what students should know by the end of 12th grade? If it’s still all about the matriculation exams, which is mainly reading and writing, then what about speaking English, something even [ministers in the government] have problems with.”

Gavriel Fiske contributed to this story.

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