Dafna, Natan's 15-year-old daughter, is a 10th grader at a leading Jerusalem high school. She excels in math and science and is taking these subjects at the highest levels, with an eye on the quality of her diploma. Despite her abilities, her father spends at least NIS 400 a month on private math tutors. This amounts to more than NIS 4,000 a year to guarantee that Dafna passes her final exam.

"This is absurd", says Natan. "My daughter is an excellent student with top grades, but the school told her it won't cover all the material required for the matriculation exam, so if she wants a high grade she should take private lessons."

Private tutoring isn't anything new. In the past, parents and students were embarrassed to admit hiring private tutors. Today, most students get some form of help, from private tutors or exam-preparation companies.

The Education Ministry just reported that 40 percent of students in grades seven to nine and one-third of students in grades five and six use private tutors in at least one core subject - their mother tongue, English, math and science/technology. Math and English are the most common subjects taught privately.

For the first time, the report included data on students in grades 10 and 11. In these years, 70 percent of students receive private tutoring, 40 percent regularly and the rest sporadically. English and math are the most common subjects here as well.

Etti Binyamin, head of the national parents' association, says 80 percent of students seek tutoring at one time or another. The rest don't because they don't have the money, not because they do well in school.

"Many parents need to take out loans to finance this," says Binyamin. "Schools don't provide enough tutoring, so additional help is required in subjects like math and English. With many heavy assignments and parents who aren't always able to help, parents prefer to pay private tutors."

Unreported income

The private tutoring market is estimated at NIS 1 billion a year. Much of the income is unreported, so the number may be higher. Lessons range from NIS 60 to NIS 200. Many students need many hours of tutoring in several subjects, imposing a high burden on the family budget.

Amiram Marcus, who runs a portal providing a database of tutors, says costs depend on several factors. Lessons are more expensive when the teacher comes to the student's house. Prices depend on the duration of the lesson and on whether the teacher has an academic background or is simply a student. Fees also differ according to location, with private math lessons in central Israel costing NIS 90 to NIS 150 an hour, compared with NIS 75 to NIS 105 in the south.

Despite the tough economic times, demand for private tutors is growing. Marcus says he now receives 900 to 950 requests daily, compared with 700 in 2009. To cut expenses without marring their performance, students can now use the Internet, where prices are lower.

Online learning is still in its infancy in Israel. Yariv Bin-Nun, CEO of eTeacher, was one of the first to spot the potential. A few years ago he hired teachers to deliver online lessons in several subjects.

"We did very well and were in high demand, but we soon realized there was something wrong with the way things work in Israel," Bin-Nun says. "Our costs for infrastructure and teachers made our product unprofitable. Salaries are high here, with other expenses that are uncommon elsewhere. It's also hard to compete in a marketplace where earnings go unreported. Today we focus on online teaching abroad, where conditions are more favorable."

Other players such as the Center for Educational Technology are in the game, working with the Education Ministry. In the center's Nachshon program, university students give online lessons to pupils with difficulties in science.

"This project began nine years ago and was designed to improve standards in the country's outskirts, opening the way to higher education in the sciences," says Gila Ben-Har, Nachshon's CEO. "We reached 15,000 students over the years, raising their grades from 65-70 to 85-90, with low attrition rates. The schools refer students to us, and we prepare them for matriculation."

Costs are very low, at NIS 200 for 60 to 100 online hours, but currently the program is only available in the country's outskirts. Ben-Har is trying to expand the project to the center of the country.

The video method

Another method is used by Itai Melumad, who runs melumad.co.il, where taped lectures are used rather than live online classes. Recorded classes and printed materials cost several hundred shekels, while courses cost in the thousands.

Melumad says students can start at a very basic level. "Lessons are easy and friendly, going hand-in-hand with written material," he says. The advantage is that students can keep returning to the material they saw on video, progressing at their own pace, unlike a classroom or online lesson. Melumad expects an increase in online business, which will be cheaper than learning face to face.

The newest site is called shioorim.co.il, which operates as a social network for teaching and learning; it's also linked to Facebook. Its site manager, who gave his name as Oren, says it works by linking an information provider to a consumer on a social basis. Anyone with knowledge can become a teacher.

"The information imparted on our site becomes a lesson unit, whatever its format," he says. "Most providers are teachers selling their services. They are profiled on their personal pages, and students provide feedback after each lesson." Online rates on this site are 30% to 50% lower than in face-to-face classes.

Oren says all the infrastructure, including cell phones, Facebook and fast Internet access are in place and will spur rapid growth in this form of teaching. Kids will meet their friends online instead of at school, with face-to-face classes gradually dwindling.