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Some 3,500 children in grades 1 through 6 dropped out of school last year, and the Education Ministry has no information about them, according to internal ministry data published here for the first time.

Under the Compulsory Education Law all children in grades 1 through 10 must be enrolled in an educational framework (as of this year the law applies through 12th grade). The ministry said in response that it estimates the number of elementary school dropouts to be very small.

"There are big 'holes' in the school system, and we lack complete information on thousands of pupils, even in the lowest grades," a senior ministry official said.

To these dropouts in lower classes must be added some 24,700 pupils in grades 7 through 12 last year.

Ministry regulations define dropouts as pupils who stopped attending schools under its supervision, including ultra-Orthodox schools. The data compiled by the ministry, and confirmed by the Central Bureau of Statistics, refers to children who were enrolled in the 2006-07 school year but did not appear in registration records on June 30, 2008. Jewish schools account for 60 percent of elementary-school dropouts. The remaining 40-percent from non-Jewish schools is disproportionately high considering that these schools cater to 27 percent of all pupils this age.

Half the Jewish dropouts attended ultra-Orthodox schools, and almost a third attended state schools. Jerusalem district schools had the highest dropout rate - some 1,600 pupils. A majority (58 percent) of elementary-school dropouts are boys.

Sources familiar with the data say that "technical glitches" might explain some dropout cases: errors in school registration, pupils who transfered to other schools or left the country. Registration problems are especially rife at ultra-Orthodox schools, they said.

Nonetheless, the officials conceded that such speculations cannot fully explain the latest figures. "Despite all attempts to supervise and monitor, we still do not know what's happened to the children who dropped out," one said. "When inquiries were made in previous years, it turned out that some of them wound up still going to school, but we were unable to track down 100 percent of them."

When the ministry checked last February, the elementary-school dropout rate was even higher: 4,500. After children were located, and sometimes reassigned to new schools, the number shrank to 3,500 by the end of June.

Some 380 of these dropouts are new immigrants, half of them from the former Soviet Union. Chanah Dashevsky of the National Council for the Child says that immigrant children who stay home from school belong to two main groups, the first being victims of bullying at school. "Sometimes they don't tell their parents about it and in other cases the parents themselves prefer that the child stays home," Dashevsky explained.

The second group comprises pupils who are candidates for referral to special education frameworks, but whose parents are opposed. "I have encountered cases in which a child is sent to a grandmother in Russia, just to keep him out of special education," she added.

Official ministry publications, which are based on the Central Bureau of Statistics, only mention the dropout figures for grades 7 through 12, not for lower grades. Knesset committees discussing education or immigrant absorption also tend to focus on students dropping out of junior high and high school.

An Education Ministry statement said: "The assumption is that the number of dropouts in this age range (grades 1-6) is very small. Based on past data, a large share of the supposed dropouts actually attend school, but the report of this has yet to be processed."

The ministry's claim notwithstanding, by the end of its last "locating operation," which focused on secondary-school students, thousands of students had not been found, and it turned out that many had indeed quit school.

The official response also stated that the ministry's director general, Shlomit Amihai, has ordered a thorough investigation of the issue, and that the children be located to ensure they have not dropped out.

"If it turns out that there are pupils who dropped out, the director general has demanded that we maintain regular and ongoing contact with them, with the object of bringing them back to school," the statement read.