2.1 million Israeli children kick off new school year

Education minister extols ‘Jewish emphasis on learning,’ says system will reduce number of matriculation exams

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative photo of  for her first day of school in the first grade, in Tzur Hadassah outside of Jerusalem, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of for her first day of school in the first grade, in Tzur Hadassah outside of Jerusalem, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The 5774 (2013-2014) school year formally opened on Tuesday with over 2.13 million schoolchildren arriving in more than 4,500 schools nationwide for their first day of classes.

Parents might not want to celebrate too quickly, however: With the Jewish new year and High Holidays just around the corner, students will still spend much of September on vacation.

The school system employs over 145,000 teachers, principals and other workers who are also returning from the summer break.

Visiting a kindergarten in Netanya, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed into the state-funded education system some 290,000 children who will start learning this year in government-funded preschools after the government’s decision last year to grant state funding for preschoolers starting at the age of three.

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Education Minister Shai Piron welcomed the start of the new school year and raised a few policy changes he planned to implement in the education system.

“There is no doubt we have to cut back on [matriculation] exams, which are given over three years on five separate occasions, with over 187 forms [per student] at a cost of NIS 270 million [$75 million],” he said. “There is no parallel in the world” to Israel’s examination regimen, he asserted.

A committee appointed by Piron’s predecessor Gideon Sa’ar, who currently serves as interior minister, is expected to present in the coming weeks a report offering recommendations to the government for reducing the matriculation burden on Israeli students.

Piron also promised a renewed focus on the core curriculum, including mathematics, Hebrew, science and other subjects.

The Education Ministry would continue to invest in “innovative educational initiatives,” Piron told the cabinet. “The ‘People of the Book,’ the people who gave the world exceptionally high numbers of Nobel laureates, writers and intellectual giants, entrepreneurs and great inventors, did so in part because of the emphasis [Jews] placed on learning.”

The figures for the new school year tell a story of population growth. The 2.13 million students expected to participate in the school system this year mark a rise of some 60,000 students over last year’s 2.07 million.

Some 161,000 children are starting kindergarten, a far higher number than the 110,000 starting 12th grade. Some of the gap is the result of students who leave school before completing high school, but much of it is the product of a growth in population and birthrate. The 149,000 children beginning first grade this year are likewise a steep increase from the 131,000 who did so as late as 2008.

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