Today's Israeli newspapers are full of smiling children returning to school, or arriving for the first time, at the end of the long summer holiday. Like other annual rituals, this is one the media observes faithfully each year - every September 1, to be exact. Eager for a bit of consensual good news, we have elevated the beginning of the school year to the level of a national holiday.

What a pity that, like almost all the national consensuses the media celebrates, this one is also not based on actual fact.

Nearly half of the 1,968,114 school and kindergarten students in Israel did not start school on Thursday, September 1. All Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) students and some of those belonging to the religious Zionist community started two days earlier, on the first day of Elul, the month of repentance that precedes Rosh Hashanah, during which being on holiday is unthinkable. Arab students will start on Sunday, after Id al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday ending the holy month of Ramadan.

The discrepancies between the Jewish, Muslim and Gregorian calendars may seem no more than a quaint vagary. After all, do two school days either way matter that much?

They don't, but the fact that mainstream Israel believes the nation's children all begin school together when a huge minority do not - and if demographic trends are anything to go by, in a few years, a majority won't - proves what a sham the national school system and curriculum really is.

There is, of course, nothing new about this situation. In 1950, coalition considerations forced Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to give up his dream of one education system for all Israeli children, and the 1953 National Education Law not only officially recognized the two state-supervised and -funded school systems, secular and religious, but also gave de facto recognition to Hinuch Atzma'i, the Haredi "Independent Education" system, which was allowed to operate with minimal outside supervision and receive some state funding. This funding rose over the years as the ultra-Orthodox parties gained in power and influence.

One attempt to alleviate the situation was made in 2003, when the Education Ministry published its core curriculum, including Hebrew, English, mathematics, science and arts. As all of these are covered in the state schools, it was clear that the program mainly targeted the ultra-Orthodox, with the aim of equipping all Israeli children with the necessary foundations to achieve gainful employment in the modern job market. Adherence to the core curriculum was to be linked to a new framework of equal funding for every child in the country.

But while many Haredi schools, especially the elementary and girls schools, teach most of these subjects anyway and could easily adapt to the demands, all were forbidden to do so by the rabbis, who insisted that "we will not allow any interference with our 'pure' education." Despite the efforts of former Education Minister Limor Livnat, they remained steadfast, refusing to consider even a watered-down version of the program. And attempts to use funding as leverage failed when Haredi politicians made it clear that would lead to the end of the coalition.

Following the failure of the core curriculum, the Education Ministry decided not to carry on with the next stage, a requirement that schools teach civics based on Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state. That would inevitably have led to a collision not just with the ultra-Orthodox, but also with the Israeli Arab community.

The rabbis' opposition is hypocritical. The "pure education that hasn't changed for thousands of years" is a sham, as the curriculum has evolved constantly in response to changing circumstances. In other countries, where state supervision and a prescribed curriculum is a requirement for public funding, as in Britain, Haredi schools have capitulated and even taken pride in their students' successes in national examinations.

There is only one reason they have been so adamant about evading all but the most cursory supervision in Israel: They know they can get away with it. They have sufficient political clout to remain independent while receiving taxpayer money to go their own way.

Does it matter?

The most powerful democratic argument they have on their side is that as long as a sufficient number of parents choose Haredi education for their children, the state has no right to interfere. The opposing argument is that parents do not have the right to deprive their children of the skills necessary to succeed in the modern world, and that it is society's duty to provide those skills. Indeed, Israel is legally bound to do so as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I used to believe this. But in recent years, my certainty has been eroded.

While the rabbis have preserved their educational independence, they have changed their stance on employment: Today, many of them quietly support a wide range of vocational training courses for both men and women who are married with children, to prepare them for employment. Some of these courses are conducted by the Israel Defense Forces, which over the last three years has inducted over 3,000 Haredi men in roles such as computer programmers, aircraft technicians and intelligence analysts. Other courses are offered by colleges and potential employers.

Years of studying Torah in yeshiva has not equipped them with the necessary knowledge for most of these jobs, but shortfalls in mathematics or English are rectified in a couple of months of intensive courses. Of course, it would have been better if they didn't need these courses and were introduced earlier to the basic educational toolbox, but if with a bit of effort, they can make up for whatever they missed out on in a few months in order to become lawyers, doctors and engineers, then the necessary-skills argument does seem a lot weaker.

Of course, schools are not just about teaching skills and imparting knowledge; they are places for socializing students. Teachers are supposed to instill values in their pupils, and where a state school system and universal curriculum exist, they are there to establish a sense of national consensus and joint purpose. But as is becoming abundantly clear, the Jewish state, despite its ostensibly obvious raison d'etre, has failed in 63 years to establish exactly what that is.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has promised to put a special emphasis this school year on national and traditional values. Likud voters love that kind of talk.

But how does the minister propose to achieve any kind of agreement on what those values are when nearly half the children he is responsible for don't even start school on the official date?