Withstanding reports of abuse and neglect that make the headlines from time to time, Israelis in general love children. The overall fertility rate for Israelis is 3.11 children per woman, much higher than any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where the average rate is about 1.7 kids per woman. Fully 10% of the Israeli population is under the age of four, double the rate in other developed countries. The Israeli rate is even higher than in most other countries in the Middle East.
The country 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.
But unfortunately, Israel lags behind other OECD nations in terms of policy and neglects early-childhood education even though these children hold the key to our future. In a special publication – the first of its kind in the country – Jerusalem’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies presents selected findings in its 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. The research findings director was Dana Vaknin, while the study initiative was headed by Prof. Yossi Shavit.
The participation rate of children ages birth to two years in educational frameworks in Israel is also high relative to the OECD – 56% versus 35%. The Compulsory Education Law for children over age three, which went into effect in 2012, contributed significantly to the participation rate of children over three in public settings among Jews and Arabs alike.
The participation rate of children aged three to five in educational settings stands at 99% today, compared to an average of 87% in the OECD countries. The majority of children in Israel spend four years or more in early education settings, attending them for an average of 30 to 50 hours per week – a high rate relative to other developed countries. Nonetheless, only a quarter of those under three 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 socio-economic backgrounds, wrote the Taub researchers. But frameworks in Israel are characterized by a low number of staff members for a large number of children: an average of five staffers for every 29 children – double the average number of children and about a quarter fewer staff members than in other countries.
In addition, staff members here 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.
Starting with the current school year (2021/2022), there is a gradual adoption of supervision regulations for daycare facilities with more than seven children whether they are private or under the supervision of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry. 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 three in Israel. Unfortunately, the authors continued, the budget allocated by the government for implementation in private settings is inadequate, resulting in concern that many private daycares may close or disregard the regulations.
The assurance of universal access to education for children over three is a welcome step, said the Taub researchers, “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.”
Those youngsters 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 socio-economic backgrounds. Nevertheless, early entrance into daycare (from their first birthday) 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. Among the recommendations are increasing investment in building new, supervised daycare facilities, estimated at NIS 3.5 million per facility; expanding access to funds and appropriate locations for building daycare facilities for Arab local authorities; expanding the universal Compulsory Education Law to include two 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, they wrote, 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.
Responsibility for early childhood settings for children up to age three will be transferred to the Education Ministry, with accompanying regulations for higher quality care and intensified supervision – a step that was approved and budgeted recently by the government.
Other necessary steps include providing professional and practical training for daycare workers for children under three and for assistants working with children between the ages of three and six, 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.
Working conditions and pay for early childhood workers must be upgraded to raise the prestige of the profession and attract more quality workers to the field. The staff-to-child must be increased 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), they wrote.
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, must be Improved and measured.
Also key to improving the situation is 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. They also recommended 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.
A different approach to child benefit allocations must be adopted to increase 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.
The research team recommended 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.
The Taub Center is an independent, non-partisan socioeconomic research institute that 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.