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Professor Andrew Markus on Future Challenges: Part III of The Education Series

July 17, 2013 – 8:43 pm5 Comments

By Andrew Markus

andrew markus2The sustainability of the Jewish day school system is a frequent subject for discussion. Yom Limmud Melbourne featured a panel on Jewish education, focused on the impact of the Gen08 communal survey (undertaken in 2008-2009) and the reports which have been generated. To put it succinctly, there is little evidence of impact or change.

Two basic issues have been highlighted: one relates to affordability, the other to viable alternatives.

There is significant demographic change in the Jewish community, notably the ageing of the population. It is likely that in years ahead fewer grandparents will be able to provide financial support for the education of their grandchildren. This demographic shift is occurring in an environment in which parents are finding it more difficult to meet school fees, in large part because of sharp increases in housing prices in the core Jewish areas.

At Limmud Oz in Sydney it was indicated that income of close to $200,000 is required to meet family living costs and school fees for two children. The chair of Sydney Jewish Communal Appeal Planning recently wrote that ‘in the period since the Global Financial Crisis many families have revisited their ability to continue sending their children to Jewish schools for the entire duration of their primary and high school education.’

What evidence is there that cost pressures are having a significant impact on numbers attending day schools? For a start, Gen08 found that 30% of parents in Melbourne and Sydney with children under the age of twenty-one indicated that the level of school fees has prevented them from sending children to Jewish day schools.

Informed community discussion would be facilitated if statistics on patterns of enrolment at Jewish schools were publicly available, but this is not the case. Some indication, however, is provided by the census, which includes a question on type of school attended (government, Catholic or other independent). Analysis by age of the 2006 and 2011 census findings for Victoria reveals a consistent increase in the proportion of Jewish students attending government primary, but not secondary, schools.

 Table 1: Jewish students attending government school by age, Victoria

Age

6

7

8

9

10

11

2006

31.6%

32.5%

31.7%

30.3%

27.9%

24.9%

2011

36.4%

39.2%

38.7%

38.5%

35.1%

31.0%

Increase

(percentage points)

4.8%

6.7%

7.0%

8.2%

7.2%

6.1%

A second key issue concerns the importance placed on Jewish day school education. It is widely believed that day school learning is vital for the formation of a strong Jewish identity.

Contrary to such belief, statistical analysis of the Gen08 survey undertaken by Dr David Graham found that ‘years in Jewish day school’, considered in isolation, was a relatively weak predictor of Jewish identity in adulthood, less than youth group involvement or Israel experience. The strongest correlation was with home environment. The impact of schools is greatest where the values of the home and of school are in harmony, as our leading educators readily acknowledge.

There is much that Jewish schools do well. They provide the strongest grounding in Jewish knowledge and nurture lifetime friendships. But these very substantial benefits need to be balanced by consideration of the pressure of financial burdens on the family life of many – and even the decision of parents to limit the number of their children so as to afford day school education.

There are also some things that day schools do less well. While for many they provide the best path to Jewish life, they do not provide the only path. Focus group discussions which were conducted as part of the Gen08 project, and which will be presented in a report currently being prepared by Dr Melanie Landau, bring to notice negative aspects. One issue highlighted is that graduates from some schools felt that their school years had been lived ‘in a bubble’: in some respects their education had not prepared them well for challenges faced outside a Jewish environment, such as the universities.

This perspective is reflected in the Gen08 survey, which asked respondents to consider the main disadvantages of Jewish schooling. Of more than ten possibilities presented, the view that day school education ‘separates Jews from other Australians’ and ‘does not prepare students for their lives after school’ ranked in the top three, along with financial cost.

Table 2: ‘What do you consider to be the main disadvantages (if any) of full-time Jewish schooling’? First issue noted.

Melbourne

Sydney

Too expensive

26.8%

19.6%

Artificially separates Jews from other Australians

23.0%

28.3%

Does not prepare students for their lives after school

10.7%

9.7%

N

2045

1615

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary on Pinchas (‘On Parents and Teachers’) observes that ‘from earliest times to today, the Jewish people has been a series of communities built around schools, sustained by communal funds so that none should be excluded.’

Today’s reality is that many are excluded: it seems that close to 50% of Jewish children do not attend a Jewish day school.

This problem is not likely to be solved by subsidies which meet a small proportion of school fees. The challenge for the community is to develop a range of attractive and realistically attainable Jewish educational opportunities. This is an issue beset with difficulties, not only financial. Provision of excellent supplementary Jewish education can raise opposition from those committed to the day school system and who see a first rate alternatives as a threat.

Reference: The Gen08 reports may be accessed at http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/gen08/

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