Classrooms in Israel are the most crowded in the West, a study by TheMarker has found.
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Based on data from 1.5 million schoolchildren in 56,700 classrooms located in more than 30 communities, TheMarker found that 37% were studying in classes of more than 32 students. Fully 18% were in classes exceeding 35 students and 3.5% were in classes where 40 or more students were crowded in.
The most crowded classrooms of all were found to be in the Arab sector, and also in the regular state education system. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) students, as well as those in the state religious school system, enjoyed smaller classes, in some cases much smaller.
But even religious students were especially crowded in high school, where many attend classes with 35, 40 or more students in them. In secular high schools, more than a quarter of all students are in classes of 35 or more.
According to 2009 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which comprises most of the world's developed economies, Israel had an average of 26.7 students per classroom, compared with an OECD average of 22. Only China, Chile and Japan have elementary school classrooms that are more crowded than Israel's.
In the last three years, the Education Ministry has invested more than NIS 500 million in a program to reduce the number of students per classroom. But it is still far from the goal set in 2008, of ensuring that no classroom in the country exceeds 32 students. In 2013, the average was in fact 26.9 students in elementary, junior high and high schools, but the figure doesn't reflect the reality in many schools because of the particularly small class sizes in Haredi schools, as well as in small educational institutions.
In the state school system, which comprises most of Israel's schools, the average classroom has 28.5 students, while in the Arab sector, the figure is 28.4. By comparison, ultra-Orthodox schools enjoy an average class size of 24.1, while in the state religious school system, the average is 24.4. The figures don't include students in special education, where the average is eight.
But Sharon Sayeg, a high school history and civics teacher, said the averages don't capture the reality of the situation in many schools. In her school, many classrooms squeeze in more than 35 students, leaving no room for a desk and chair for the teacher. Students can't concentrate and the teachers have no time to give them individual attention.
Third World conditions
"The conditions under which we teach are a lot less optimal than the numbers show," she said. "Teachers in state schools should be able to teach as they do in developed countries, not under Third World conditions."
Haredi children enjoy smaller class sizes because they constitute a relatively small population studying at a relatively large number of educational institutions, said Nachum Balas of Jerusalem's Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.
Regarding the Arab sector, he said that over the last several years, more resources have been invested in reducing classroom density. This has brought the average class size down faster than in other sectors. "The gaps have narrowed, but they still exist," he said.
Prof. Nimrod Aloni, head of the Institute for Advanced Education at the Kibbutzim College of Education, said it was ironic that the biggest sector of the educational system, the state secular schools, also had the biggest class sizes.
"There's no reason why state secular education should be at the bottom of the ladder of the broader educational system," he said. "A situation of such high classroom density is intolerable. Under such conditions, the teacher is dealing with survival and can't relate to each and every student."
Shlomo Brilant, director of the Union of Yeshivas, admitted that ultra-Orthodox schools have smaller classes, but said it was not because they receive any extra funding from the Education Ministry.
"The government doesn't give more to the Haredim," he said. "In the Haredi community, parents help cover the costs, because for us education is more important than anything. Parents are ready to pay for quality and better education."
Brilant also said that many ultra-Orthodox schools are housed in substandard buildings, either temporary structures or rented premises. It is impossible to squeeze too many students into classes under such conditions, he said.
Sources in the Education Ministry said that the state religious school system has been shrinking over the last several years while the secular system has been growing, which explains the trends in classroom size in the two sectors.
Among municipalities, the city of Modi'in has the most crowded classrooms, with an average of 31.5 for state secular schools and 28.4 for state religious facilities. Just under a third of the city's students are in classrooms with 35 or more.
In Jerusalem, however, Haredi schools average 26.5 students per classroom while secular schools average 26.1 and state religious schools have just 25.1. Only a quarter of all students are in especially crowded classrooms.
In Tel Aviv, 27% are studying in classrooms with 35 or more students.