Can a plain t-shirt be the answer to the problems of the Israeli education system? Education Minister Gideon Saar thinks so. He has just reintroduced mandatory school uniform and announced that the nation’s 1.5 million pupils must stand when a teacher enters class.
Appearing on TV last week, Saar suggested that uniforms improve the atmosphere inside schools, by increasing equality and creating a sense of shared pride. But, he said, his ministry is considering placing closed-circuit cameras inside schools in the near future.
Until 25 years ago, all Israeli schools had uniforms, but liberal educational approaches have since favoured more and more “freedom to the pupil”. The choice of whether to make uniforms compulsory was left to each school and as a result they all but disappeared. It has become very difficult for schools to punish children by sending them home or expelling them from a class. It is more common these days that parents call teachers to complain over perceived inadequacies in the curriculum or the treatment of the children. When it comes to higher education, especially in technology related areas, Israelis tend to do especially well. In their recently published bestseller Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer mention that the number of patents registered by Israelis between 1980 and 2000 was 7,652 (77 for Egyptians and 20 for Syrians). But when you look at elementary school, the situation is not so good. Comparative international exams point to deteriorating performance of Israeli children, and the last PISA results, conducted by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), have showed that Israel ranks 39th out of 57 countries.
Saar says that in order to change course, you need to have “a climate of learning” in schools, and that an effective educational system can be achieved only if you put boundaries in place and strengthen teachers’ authority. His critics counter that this is merely cosmetics and that he should start by increasing teachers’ salaries in order to attract the best possible personnel.
Etti Wolf, who’s been running an elementary school in northern Israel for the last 20 years, says that reintroducing uniform is an important and useful tool. Children in her school already wear uniforms, and this, she says, helps in creating the right atmosphere. “Ten-year-old boys and girls come to school with the most fashionable clothes you can find,” she says, “and that’s part of the environment – that everything is permitted. In my school I am very strict: if someone comes without uniform, their parents must come and bring it to school.” Two years ago, one of the teachers in her school suggested that the staff should wear a sort of uniform too. The point was to set an example. Trousers or skirts could be any type but shirts had to be either black or white. The regime lasted only a year, she says. The reason? The teachers rebelled.