Israel holds the record in many areas related to early childhood including the percentage of young children in the population, their participation rate in educational frameworks, and the number of hours they spend in those settings. However, Israel lags behind in terms of policy, and neglects early childhood education even though these children hold the key to our future. This special publication, the first of its type, presents selected findings from Taub Center research on early childhood in Israel relative to other countries, and looks at the implications for policy and possible options to improve the investment in, and quality of care for, children in this critical age group.
More children, more working mothers, fewer supervised and quality frameworks
The fertility rate in Israel is higher than in the OECD countries – an average of 3.0 children per woman versus 1.6 in the OECD – and even higher than in most other countries in the Middle East. In Israel, 10% of the population is under age 4, double the rate in other developed countries.
The participation rate of children ages birth to 2 in educational frameworks in Israel is also high relative to the OECD: 56% versus 35%. The Compulsory Education Law for children over age 3, which went into effect in 2012, contributed significantly to the participation rate of children over 3 in public settings among Jews and Arabs alike. The participation rate of children ages 3-5 in educational settings stands at 99% today versus an average of 87% in the OECD countries. The majority of children in Israel spend 4 years or more in early education settings, attending them for an average of 30-50 hours per week – a high rate relative to other developed countries. Nonetheless, only a quarter of those under 3 are in government-supervised settings.
The employment rate for mothers of very young children in Israel is also relatively high, something that affects the participation rate of children in early childhood care. Participation rates are also connected to the short maternity leave in Israel (15 weeks versus an OECD average of 18 weeks). Nevertheless, maternity leave benefits in Israel are relatively generous in international comparison – mothers receive 100% of their salary during maternity leave, and this benefit is provided to a larger number of children and mothers in Israel relative to other countries.
The participation of very young children in quality educational frameworks advances their cognitive, social, and emotional development and improves their future academic achievements, especially for children from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds. Frameworks in Israel are characterized by a low number of staff members for a large number of children: an average of 5 staff for every 29 children – double the average number of children and about a quarter fewer staff members than in other countries. Moreover, staff members in Israel are largely assistants, most of whom have no more than a high school education. In addition, public expenditure per child on early childhood education and care is low in Israel in international terms, partially due to the large number of children in Israel.
The Daycare Supervision Law – a good start but not enough
Beginning with the current school year (2021/2022) there is to be a gradual adoption of supervision regulations for daycare facilities with more than seven children whether they are private or under the supervision of the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services. The regulations set the maximum number of children per facility, the minimum requirements for physical space, and the maximum ratio of staff to children, and further require that staff undergo 220 hours of pedagogical training as well as monthly teacher training. The Daycare Supervision Law is an initial and essential stage in improving the quality of early education and care frameworks for children under 3 in Israel. Unfortunately, the budget allocated by the government for implementation in private settings is insufficient, resulting in a fear that many private daycares may close or disregard the regulations.
The assurance of universal access to education for children over 3 is a welcome step, but it does not ensure equal access to high-quality educational settings. A child’s family circumstances and the socioeconomic status of both the family and the educational framework chosen by the parents influence the child’s environment and early educational opportunities. Taub Center research findings show that those who are in greater need of these educational settings – those from weaker population groups – participate at a lower rate. Findings also show that children who spend more hours in these frameworks have higher achievements – especially those from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds. Nevertheless, early entrance into daycare (from age 1) leads to low future achievements, primarily among Arab children and children to mothers without higher education, suggesting that the low achievements are related to the poor quality of the daycare settings attended by these very young children.
In addition, Israel leads the developed world in childhood poverty rates: as of 2017, the share of children living in poverty in Israel was close to 24%. A Taub Center study shows that economic distress experienced by very young children has a lasting and substantial effect on later achievements in school.
The data indicate several policy steps that can be taken to deal with the issues of early childhood education and care in Israel:
Increasing the participation rate of children under 3 in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) settings:
- Increasing investment in building new, supervised daycare facilities, estimated at NIS 3.5 million per facility according to the Knesset Research and Information Center.
- Widening access to funds and appropriate locations for building ECEC daycare facilities for Arab local authorities.
- Expanding the universal Compulsory Education Law to include 2-year-olds or changing the requirements for subsidized daycare as well as the level of subsidy – regardless of the parent’s employment status. The emphasis would shift from supporting working parents to providing quality education and care; the expected impact on the labor market will also need to be examined.
Improving the quality of early education and care:
- Transferring responsibility for early childhood settings for children up to age 3 to the Ministry of Education, with accompanying regulations for higher quality care and intensified supervision – a step that was approved and budgeted recently by the government.
- Providing professional and practical training for daycare workers for children under 3 and for assistants working with children between the ages of 3 and 6, a process that is underway following the adoption of the Daycare Supervision Law. This step will raise the minimum requirements for working in this field and will set clear professional standards.
- Improving working conditions and pay for early childhood workers – something that will raise the prestige of the profession and attract more quality workers to the field.
- Increasing the staff to child ratio in line with accepted levels in other developed countries. The Daycare Supervision Law changed this but not enough (1:6 staff to children up to age 15 months versus 1:5 in other countries).
- Improving and measuring the quality of educational and developmental activities in frameworks and of the interaction between children and staff and other children, which influence children’s future achievements.
Addressing poverty among young children:
- Raising the income of families living in poverty through encouraging labor force participation, for example through increasing work grants, especially among working parents of young children.
- Increasing the rate of income assurance and expanding benefit uptake among families living in poverty, for example through linking it to participation in a vocational training or parenting program.
- Adopting a different approach to child benefit allocations – increasing benefits to families with young children and lowering the benefit to those with older children, thus assisting parents to improve the quality of education and care at this critical age.
- Introducing a program of food stamps to provide a healthy nourishing basket for families of young children at a reduced price like in the US, which was shown to improve the health of children and their cognitive and educational achievements.
Expanding the database on young children in Israel:
- Collecting accurate and extensive data on early childhood education and care frameworks and on participation rates in them following the implementation of the Daycare Supervision Law, and creating the possibility of combining data from the Tipat Halav (Family Health Centers) database with Central Bureau of Statistics databases.
- Conducting long-term research on young children in Israel, including physiological, psychological, and social data that will help in the formulation of long-term policy for early childhood.
- Participating in the OECD’s international research, gathering comprehensive empirical data on the home environment and parenting of children and the educational frameworks they participate in as well as on children’s social, cognitive, and emotional abilities. The OECD is interested in including Israel in their research.
This publication is generously supported by the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv
The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel is an independent, non-partisan socioeconomic research institute. The Center provides decision makers and the public with research and findings on some of the most critical issues facing Israel in the areas of education, health, welfare, labor markets and economic policy in order to impact the decision-making process in Israel and to advance the well-being of all Israelis.