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Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar presented an education plan yesterday including monetary awards to schools for achievements and prizes to students excelling in core subjects, additional classroom hours in third and seventh grades in some subjects, and a new element in Jewish and Zionist studies.

Sa'ar said the principle behind the plan, which he presented to a special meeting of the Knesset Education Committee, is "improving students achievements together with strengthening values."

Sa'ar said another major goal of the plan was to strengthen official public education in the face of a rise in unofficial schools, which receive a large amount of government funding. "We must not wake up one day in a few years to a situation in which everyone who can will study outside the official system," Sa'ar said.

Sa'ar said the principals of the three religious private schools in Petah Tikva that had refused to admit immigrant children from Ethiopia would be summoned today by Education Ministry director-general Shimshon Shoshani for a hearing.

Sa'ar told the Education Committee that his ministry would develop a model whereby schools that could show improved achievements would receive bonus funding. The achievements would be in the areas of country-wide testing, prevention of drop-outs, reducing violence and numbers of students who go into the army or national service.

Schools would be able to use the money to improve teaching and learning, but some could also be distributed among the entire school staff.

However, the inclusion of army service as one of the parameters for success in schools raised criticism: MK Yuli Tamir, who was Sa'ar's predecessor as education minister, said the plan would would only increase gaps between Jewish and Arab schools.

A statement by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said: "the right to education is a basic right, and cannot be conditioned on anything, including army service."

Sa'ar also said quantifiable goals would be instated to assist students in improving in the next round of international tests. For example, in the next round of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's PISA testing, Sa'ar wants Israel to jump from 40th place to 20th.

Among the other components of the plan are some 35,000 extra classroom hours across Israel for the third and seventh grades in language, math and science. In an effort to focus on raising achievements in the core subjects, the ministry has decided to reduce by 25 percent the elective courses offered in high schools.

The minister also discussed a pilot project beginning this year in Haifa, Petah Tikva and Netanya, where the number of students in each school who pass their matriculation exams will be published. Another pilot project beginning will allow students to enroll in elementary schools in areas other than their closest school.

Such a system would "inculcate a system based on supply and demand," Sa'ar said, and would encourage schools to develop special educational concepts.

However, some experts warned that the plan could widen the gaps between various sectors of the population.

Sa'ar's plan for values education includes the inclusion of a new subject - Jewish heritage and culture - to be taught from fourth to ninth grades beginning in the 2010/2011 school year. The new subject will focus on elements such as role models in Judaism and Zionism, the Jewish life cycle, and social and moral values in Judaism and Zionism.

The new subject is a response to the fact that tests repeatedly reveal students' ignorance of our roots, Sa'ar said.

Sa'ar said that as part of their values education, students would tour more in Jerusalem, and that a curriculum would encourage army and national service, "in schools with low induction numbers."