Israeli education system represents mosaic of various schools reflecting diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and social backgrounds of the society. Latest developments show growing number of semi-private schools, most of them belonging to the “democratic education wave”. Israel is the first country in the world whose government recognizes and support democratic schools.
What is democratic education?
The origin of democratic education we can find in many alternative approaches to education, which question the dominant teacher centre school system. From the beginning of the XX century several independent schools have been established to offer other than traditional schooling. They were named starting from progressive, through open or free and since the nineties the of XX century the most common description of the new wave is “democratic education”. The main idea behind this movement is to immerse children in milieu where they learn democratic values and responsibilities. Many of these types of schools belong to a growing network and are supported by international organizations like The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) or The European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC) which seeks to promote and enhance democratic education across Europe.
EUDEC defines democratic education as education conducted in keeping with the resolution stipulating as follows: in any educational institution, students have the right:
- to make their own choices regarding learning and all other areas of everyday life. In particular, they may individually determine what to do, when, where, how and with whom, so long as their decisions do not infringe on the liberty of others to do the same.
- to have an equal share in the decision making as to how their organisations – in particular their schools – are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary
Overview of the Israeli education system
Following the tradition of past generations, education continues to be a fundamental value and is recognized as the key to Israel’s future. This finds confirmation in the number of financial resources directed to education. In international comparison, Israel devotes a relatively high share of GDP to education. Expenditure on primary through tertiary educational institutions as a percentage of the GDP is one of the highest in the world. It represented 6,2% of the GDP compared to 4,9% on average across OECD countries in 2018. However there is ongoing discussion on how effective the system is as well as voice of experts opting for the necessary education system reform.
Economic prosperity depends on maintaining a high employment-to-population ratio, and the increasing number of women entering the labour market has contributed to greater government interest in expanding early childhood education and care (ECEC) services. ECEC is considered fundamental to building the foundations of cognitive development and helps mitigate the effect of inequalities later on in life. Israel has a long history of early childhood education. Kindergartens played an important role in helping to develop a unified identity amongst children who emigrated from different countries. Since 2012, compulsory education has started at the age of 3 in Israel.
The national education system consists of 5 levels: pre-primary, primary, secondary, post-secondary and higher education (see Figure 1). In general terms, primary and secondary education in Israel can be divided into 4 different school types. The school type will determine part of the curriculum, however all public schools financed by the Ministry of Education must provide the basic curriculum, supplemented by subjects that are relevant to the specific group.
Public sector schools include the secular schools, that offer the state-education curriculum in Hebrew as set by the Ministry of Education, the orthodox schools, that offer state-religious education in Hebrew, with greater attention devoted to religion and Jewish culture in combination with the national curriculum; and the Arab schools, that offer the state curriculum in Arabic, in combination with a greater focus on Arab history, culture and beliefs.
The school are usually owned by municipalities, foundations, and other entities and are financed by government or local municipalities sources. (See Figure 2 – Flow of public finance for primary and lower secondary education in Israel).
The core of semi-private Israeli democratic schools
In addition to schools in the public sector, there are also independent schools that operate outside the national system but that are still accredited. The Israeli State Educational Law 1953 allows for “recognized but not official” semiprivate schools to operate as part of a political compromise to enable the Ministry of Education to supervision all educational institutions operating in the country. According to a law from 1968, all schools in Israel must have a license to provide education. Currently, this arrangement of accreditation relates mainly to schools run by the ultraorthodox Jewish community but also to an increasing number of nonreligious democratic schools. The latter are development of the last three decades and refer to democratic education principles.
According To Yaacov Hecht – founder of the first Israeli democratic school in Hadera four characteristics of democratic turn in education means:
- democratic running of schools: by which life in the school undergoes. Within scope of democratic structures and processes the are a democratic community with a parliament, judicial committees, executive committees and participation of all partners in school community, daily practice in democratic learning environments, what also means that students are given influence on curriculum and administrative decisions that affects their lives
- pluralistic learning that acknowledges the uniqueness of the student and is based on the equal right of every person to express this uniqueness – keeping the right the students to freely choose what, how, and when to learn, that means the method, time and place of learning, what to learn, how, as every individual on this planet has u unique learning profile, pluralistic learning that allows students to choose their favourite subjects and offers self-study programs with a lot of opportunities; it also allows seeing different people, different societies and different point of views as a source of growth.
- dialogic approach – dialog is employed in many organizational activities of the schools such as daily meetings, discussions, conflict resolutions, problem-solving, developing organizational strategies, leadership and strengthening school-community cooperation. This principle involves participants to be in discussion about the educational process of their school, dialogic ways of conducting teaching-learning processes. The essence of the dialogic is understood to lie in a person’s relationship to him/herself, as well as to others, as free, autonomous subjects involved, consciously, in shaping one’s own character and world. A dialogical relationship based on unique models of inter-relationship between adults and children and between children. The dialogic elements should be characterized by mutual openness. This enables the student and the teacher to become familiar with themselves, to raise questions, to share doubts, and to engage in a dialogue guided by ethical concerns.
- building curriculum and content of learning based on respecting human rights including minority issues.
The best example of that type of school is the Democratic School of Hadera, which was founded in 1987 by a parents’ initiative led by the Israeli educator Yaakov Hecht. The democratic school in Hadera was formed very slowly in deliberative, non-hierarchic processes. The Ministry of Education recognized it in 1992 and integrated into the formal school system. In 1994, the school was awarded the Education Prize by the president and the minister of education, and in 1996 it was awarded the title of Defender of Quality Government from the Israeli Movement for Quality Government. Today about 400 students between the ages of four and 18 attend the school, making it the largest democratic school in the country.
Within democratic processes and structures there is a legislative, executive and judicial branch in Hadera school. The school’s legislative body is called the parliament, members of which representing entire school environment (students, the staff, and parents) meet once a week. Everybody who convenes at a parliamentary session is allowed to propose new rules or modifications to already existing ones. All school rules are decided upon at the parliamentary sessions by simple majority voting, from playground design through budget management, to the employment and dismissal of staff.
The financing of the democratic schools usually requires parents’ contribution. Under the framework of the Hadera school for students whose parents cannot pay the school fees there are ways to receive a scholarship. The other example without any fees for students is Givall democratic school in the poorer region of Givat Olga. In 2006 group of enthusiastic educators, the city mayor and ministry of education established Givall Democratic – Community school in order to provide high standard education to children from low socioeconomic background. Learning in the school undergoes by means of inversed integration (half of the students live in the neighbourhood and half of them live in other settlements in the region). A mix of public funding and private donations finances the school. Thanks to it school allows students to study and practice what they are most passionate about.
Why Israeli democratic school movement is so interesting?
Firstly, the foundation of the Hadera school set the ball rolling on educational reform in Israel. It influenced the establishment the new ones of the same type. What is more important it also paved the way for more democratic changes in the existing state schools. There are around 40 state-recognized schools with a participatory and democratic character. Democratic schools have now become an important, official part of the Israeli education system.
Secondly, it was assumed that thanks to democratisation of the schools the whole system may contribute to the democratization of society and prevent aggression and the production of extremist and terrorist worldviews. If dialogue and dialogical methods are embedded in the organizational culture they enrich an individual’s understandings and insights as the dialectical process advances in a manner that allows participants to grasp the moral complexities of everyday life.
Thirdly, these schools not only create a curriculum that gives young people democratic experiences but also prove that are many ways to learn that can lead students to achievements and self-realization. Learning based education system adopted in democratic schools offers many alternatives according to user circumstances and values and only part of these ways require teacher – centre learning.
Education system Israel, (2017) Nuffic, 1st edition, December 2013, version 2, March 2017, https://www.nuffic.nl/sites/default/files/2020-08/education-system-israel.pdf
European Democratic Education Community, https://eudec.org/democratic-education/what-is-democratic-education/
Facts and Figures in the Education System, (2013), State of Israel, Ministry of Education, https://meyda.education.gov.il/files/MinhalCalcala/Facts.pdf
Givall democratic community school, http://www.matanel.org/project/givall-democratic-community-school/
Hecht, Y. (2002), Pluralistic learning as the core of the democratic education, http://www.adec.edu.au/documents/pluralistic.pdf
Kizel, Arie. (2020) Empowering Students: The Dialogical Philosophy of the Democratic Schooling in Israel. In: Borys Khohod & Nevide Akipinar Dellal (eds.) Modern Critical Trends in Education. Dusseldorf: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, pp. 49-61.
Kizel, Arie. (2021) What is so Alternative about the Alternative Education in Israel?
The Scale of 11 Challenges set by the Alternative Education None-Mainstream Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, 2021, Vol.15, Issue 30, https://jual.nipissingu.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2021/10/v14288.pdf
OECD, Education GPS, Israel , Overview of the Education System , (EAG 2021)
Shalom, Y.B. (2006). The Democratic School in Hadera. In: Educating Israel. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781403983619_5
 Definition is based on the 2005 Resolution of the 13th International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC), Berlin, Germany) https://eudec.org/democratic-education/what-is-democratic-education/
These schools are communities where Article 12 of the UN convention on the child’s rights, which states that children have a right to have a say on matters that affect them, is fully realised.
 Schools are attended by ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews devote little time to secular education.