An illustrative image of an Israeli classroom.
An illustrative image of an Israeli classroom. Photo by Moran Maayan
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Average number of students per classrooms in OECD.
Average number of students per classrooms in OECD.

In less than a month, Yoni will be starting first grade at a school somewhere in the center of the country, and his parents are especially worried. Since they've discovered that his class will have 40 children in it, they have been in constant contact with their fellow parents in a desperate effort to convince administrators to reduce the number.

"How is my child supposed to learn under conditions like this? It means I have to already start thinking about private lessons," says his mother, who asked not to be identified. "This can't but hurt the level of education. It means he won't get any personal contact, no one will listen to him. He'll get lost in the anarchy of the classroom. There's no way a teacher can control everyone."

Tel Aviv parents revolt

Meanwhile, parents of children enrolled at Tel Aviv elementary schools have launched a campaign against the city over classroom crowding – not just in the classroom but in the school's outdoor play areas.

One Sharon area school found a solution for parents. Anat, the mother of a girl in third grade, has been paying extra for the school to reduce class sizes for some subjects, even though she knows the Education Ministry bans the practice.

"We didn’t have a choice," she says., "The administration called us to a meeting and told us the classes would be more crowded than ever and that they have no alternatives because the Education Ministry refuses to help."

The principal showed us the classroom where their children would be learning. "We felt we needed to do something," she says.

Israeli school children pass most of their school day under especially crowded conditions. An investigation by TheMarker found, however, that the number of pupils in a given class is only part of the problem. The Education Ministry's declared standard for class size is 49 square meters, and most classrooms meet it. The ministry allows up to 40 pupils in a room that size, which works out to a floor space of 1.22 square meters per child. That doesn't include the teacher or other personnel.

In 2008, the ministry increased the size of classrooms being built from that year on to 53 square meters, but it still allows schools to put as many as 40 pupils in the rooms. The average space per child is still just 1.32 square meters.

By comparison, the Israel Prisons Authority mandates that each inmate get between 3 and 3.5 square meters in cell space. For new facilities, the minimum is 4.5 square meters, which is still half the average cell size in the West.

The last report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the average Israeli elementary school classroom has 28.4 pupils, more than seven more than the 21.4 average for member countries. That amounts to floor space of 1.86 square meters for schools built before 2008. And even that understates the extent of the crowdeding because Haredi classes tend to be much smaller.

The Education Ministry's estimate for average elementary school class size is higher than the OECD's, or about 35.

"When I go into my classroom I feel like I'm in a Chinese factory that uses child labor. I have no control over what happens in the classroom and I know at the end of the day I haven't done my best for the children," says a teacher who spoke on condition on anonymity.

"Last year I asked to teach without a desk so I would have more room, but it really didn't help," she adds.

Back row suffers most

Ehud Ozen, the former chairman of the Rishon Letzion Parents Committee and today a candidate for city council, says crowding has a direct impact on student performance.

"It's the hardest for the kids sitting in the back row, who can't learn anything." he says. "The teacher can't reach every child physically because there's almost no room to move. To get to the back row she needs to climb over backpacks."

In fact, the Education Ministry has no data on actual levels of crowding in the classrooms. Only now it is taking its first-ever survey and that won't be ready until the end of the year.

The mandated classroom size isn't based on any study of the minimum needed for a certain quality of education, rather on budgets. Officials admit that the standard for a room is too small but there is no money to build bigger facilities.

In high schools, classrooms are slightly larger. New rooms are built at a minimum size of 60 square meters, which is supposed to house no more than 36 students, working out to an average per student of 1.66 square meters.

Nevertheless, classrooms built before 2008 only had to meet a standard of 53 square meters, which works out to average of 1.76 square meters a student.

School construction is supposed to be a joint effort between the Education Ministry and the local authorities. Avi Kominski, chairman of the association representing local authority education officials, says the ministry supplies a bare bones budget. Local authorities are supposed to make up the difference, adding as much as 40% to what the ministry provides.

"However, a lot of schools are built to the minimum standard," he says. "That's a pity because when you build a school, it's for generations."