As it does every year, September 1st marked the start of the new school year for Israeli children. This year, however, the date also signified another new beginning, at least in theory – the enforcement of the Daycare Supervision Law that Israel passed back in 2018.
In Israel, the extension of the country’s Compulsory Education Law to children ages 3–4 about a decade ago ensured the supervision and standardization of kindergartens for children of these ages. Yet this supervision did not extend to early childhood frameworks for children under the age of 3. The Daycare Supervision Law that passed in 2018 and the regulations that were added in January this year extended the supervision to frameworks for children under the age of 3 with 7 or more children, primarily with regard to the maximum number of children, the ratio between the number of staff and the number of children, staff training, and the physical space of the preschool. These requirements will be gradually implemented starting this school year, 2021/2022. Yet many preschools have not managed to meet the requirements of the law by the deadline, in part because of additional challenges early childhood educational frameworks have faced in the past two years as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
These topics were among those discussed in depth in a conference hosted by the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality this summer on “Early Childhood Education in Israel: To Corona and Back.” Research from around the world shows that the first few years of life are critical to children’s cognitive and emotional development, and that gaps emerge during these years that only grow and become harder to close with time. Early childhood educational frameworks can help to spur development and narrow such gaps. Furthermore, in Israel the need for quality early childhood frameworks is even more pronounced due to the country’s high level of fertility and young age structure, high female participation in the labor market, and high poverty rate, particularly among children.
So how can the efficiency and accessibility of early childhood educational frameworks be improved in Israel? In a session focusing on this question, Taub Center researcher Noam Zontag presented findings suggesting that preschool education is even more important for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than for children from stronger socioeconomic backgrounds while Taub Center researcher Shavit Madhala shared that low participation rates in early childhood frameworks in Arab-majority localities (which tend to be characterized by relatively low socioeconomic levels) can be attributed to four central causes: parents’ personal preferences, accessibility challenges, institutional challenges, and the financial burden.
Elad Demalach, an economist at the Bank of Israel and PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, and his research collaborators found that spending time in preschools for Arab children in Israel improved language skills, increased high school graduation rates and matriculation eligibility, increased enrollment in higher education, and decreased juvenile criminal activity. “We can see that exposure to early childhood education has a significant impact on success later in life,” explained Demalach. Dr. Tali Yariv-Mashal, General Director of the Beracha Foundation, further emphasized that, given the complexity of the issue, “there is no one ministry that can fully address the socioeconomic gaps that stem from the gaps in education and care in early childhood…So we need to design a more holistic approach.”
Another session of the conference addressed the debate surrounding the Daycare Supervision Law. Dr. Yousef Jabareen, Former MK and Chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, discussed the primary challenge that arose in the process, including the discrepancy between the new standards for early childhood frameworks and insufficient budgeting to actually meet these new standards. Educational entrepreneur and activist Ahinoam Hananya, who herself manages a private kindergarten in Tel Aviv, emphasized the financial strain the new regulations are putting on private daycares and expressed fears shared by many in the field that the new standards will keep staff away from preschools when the system already suffers from a serious lack of potential workers.
Despite the budgetary challenges, Sima Hadad, Vice Chairperson of the National Council for Early Childhood, insisted that “we cannot give up on quality, including staff training, properly defining the profession, and creating an educational environment for all children.” The stakes for the children and the country as a whole are simply too high. Varda Malka, Director of Knowledge and Tools Development in the Daycare Department at the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services, provided assurance that steps are already being taken by the Ministry to improve quality education through training courses for preschool staff.
As was clear from these sessions, implementing the Daycare Supervision Law and improving the quality of early childhood education in Israel is challenging enough without additional complicating factors. And yet, just as it affected every other aspect of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on early childhood education frameworks and, most concerning, has widened the gaps among the children attending them. In a panel addressing the emergence from the crisis in the realm of early childhood, a number of steps were suggested to minimize the damage done by the pandemic.
Prof. Yair Ziv, Chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Haifa, stressed the importance of gathering adequate data to assess the long-term effects of the pandemic and warned that “we must not treat the coronavirus as a unique, one-time crisis,” but rather use it to prepare for other unforeseen crises in the future. Dr. Merav Turgeman, Director of Pedagogical Administration at the Department of Preschool Education at the Ministry of Education, emphasized the importance of including parents in any plan moving forward, reminding everyone that “parental involvement at this age is critical.” Furthermore, Dr. Carmel Blank, Senior Researcher at the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality, expressed that to minimize the harm of the pandemic on early childhood frameworks, reducing gaps during this critical period of life must be made a high priority by government bodies.
Why must this subject be placed prominently on the policy agenda? Dr. Carmel Blank and Dr. Naomi Moreno, Director of Early Childhood Dialogue and one of the panel chairs at the conference, shared their thoughts on this and the connection between early childhood frameworks and broader inequality in Israeli society in a podcast episode that was released in conjunction with the conference. As Dr. Moreno says in the episode, “Early childhood educational settings present a window of opportunity, one that even by kindergarten may already be closed.”