Kids Pay the Price of Free Gan

On August 27, under pressure from last summer’s social protests and the Trachtenberg committee, Israel  implemented free education for all 3- and 4-year-olds. This has been in the works for many years. Until this year, the government provided free kindergarten for 5-year-olds, and a (relatively) inexpensive preschool for 4-year-olds. Some municipalities also provided gan for 3-year-olds, but in limited numbers.

When I’ve written about this previously, readers accused me of being against day care or dual career families. On the contrary, preschools are an important service and the government has done a good job of providing a more or less universal standard of care among the various sectors. I have my complaints, but for the most part gan (preschool) in Israel does what it was supposed to do.

But if the government is expanding its services to younger children, they need to provide adequate staff and equipment. They need to adhere to an age-appropriate schedule. This is regardless of how much parents are expected to pay.

Keren Neubach interview with Dorit Hazan

On September 1, Keren Neubach of Reshet Bet radio interviewed the head of a new organization for teachers of three-year-olds. A teacher with 19 years of experience, Dorit Hazan started her own organization because she felt that the teachers’ union did not address the needs of small children when they agreed to a long school day (2007 Ofek Hadash program).

Hazan was invited in light of a letter posted on a public forum about a teacher’s experience on the first day of gan. (A translation of part of the letter appears under the video below.)

Neubach: This is an historic and welcome moment. But what about the children, who can’t talk. How is it for them?

Hazan: We have a lot of very small children, including many who are not yet 3. They are barely trained, they can’t pull their pants up or down, and the toilets are too high for them. The staff can’t function and I have asked for another helper. Rechovot municipality promised an extra staff member, but only in groups where there are more than 20 children born in 2009. In a family daycare setting, you need one caretaker for every 6-8 children. Here there are two adults for 35 children. We had to take a child outside to clean him off.

Our voices are sore, and our backs hurt. We are “a broken vessel” at the end of the day. Everyone comes out frustrated. In the city of Rechovot, there are fifty new ganim. But there are no toys.  A ganenet from Sderot described her class of 35 children. Both she and the assistant have 3 children on their laps at all times. Another child is biting, and another is crying for his mother. Parents don’t see. Someone needs to go to the schools to see the impact of the Trachtenberg report.

There are children who are only 2 years and 8 months old. They need more attention. It’s not only about diapers. They need to learn communication. How to play, how to relate to other children.But there is only crying, crying, crying and no way to comfort the children.

Neubach: What is the difference between this year and previous years? There have always been municipal ganim for 3-year-olds with only two staff members.

Hazan: There were also a few children under 3. But the numbers were limited them, and the ones who did come were trained and ready. Now these young children must be admitted even if they are not trained. We spend all day in the bathroom, there are children walking around naked, playing with the water. There is no time to do projects with the children. The older children get no attention.

Neubach: What does the education ministry say?

Hazan: We set up this new organization because we got no help from the teachers’ union. (histadrut hamorim). Ofek chadash did not take care of these children. Also there is the issue of no lunch until 2 PM, which was not connected to Trachtenberg.

Neubach: What is the solution?

Hazan: We must limit the number of children in gan. Pnina Klein, a childcare expert, says that there should be two adults for every 16 three-year-olds. We are willing to compromise with 20 or 25. To let us care for the chidlren. Also, let the children who go to the tzaharon (afternoon program) leave at 1 PM instead of 2, and leave the ganenet with a smaller amount of children for the last hour.

Response from Pnina Cohen, a representative of the education ministry. 

Cohen: A half year ago you were so skeptical and look, 290,000 children out of 317,000 are in the system. It’s wonderful to bring a ganenet who is saying these things, but most teachers don’t have a single complaint. There have always been problems with untrained children. We gave clear guidelines: Children will be trained within one month. Some cities have 3 and 4-year-olds together. I would love to see 15 children with 2 adults. We are not in an optimal situation. Pnina Klein said it could harm the children, so we put 3 and 4-year-olds together. (This is not happening in my city of Petach Tikva,where the 3-year-olds were placed together out of their neighborhood, meaning a 1-2 kilometer walk at the end of the day.) Some weaker municipalities got better budgets, and some richer ones provided better services.

Clip from Channel Two news Monday night. English transcript follows.

Yael Berkel Sarig: I feel like we are abandoning the children.

Dorit Hazan, chair of the organization, Kindergarten Teacher Educators of 3-Year-Olds: It’s hard for us. We are tired. We don’t manage to function.

Announcer: The staff is collapsing under the (large) number of children. After they sold us free education for 3 and 4-year-olds, many parents and teachers are now discovering the price. Play equipment was not prepared properly, the buildings are temporary.

Avishai Roth, father of two: There are cases where the children are waiting in line for the bathroom, and simply can’t hold it in. There are 4 toilet stalls. For how many children? For 140 children. [Note: Some municipalities built complexes to hold several new kindergarten classrooms.]

Sarig: It’s enough that one child goes to the bathroom, and the teacher is left alone with 34 children. Two are fighting in the corner, another is crying because he’s hungry, one is crying because he’s tired, another one wet his pants, and two want to play a game. It’s impossible.

Announcer: And one teacher and one assistant are expected to cope with this impossible situation every day.

Hazan: How do the parents expect us to educate the children when we spend all day only changing diapers and putting out fires?

[Excerpt of] a letter from a teacher who has simply given up:

To the teachers’ union: I decided to turn to you in writing and my hand is shaking, and the tears are flowing. . . I received 35 3-year-old children of whom ten are not toilet-trained. As you know, the gan does not have appropriate facilities, the toilets are too high. My heart breaks when the children must wait to use the bathroom until someone comes to help. Apparently only God can watch the children in those moments. We do not succeed in getting to them. From an emotional point of view, we are collapsing.

Announcer: Through the gates of this preschool we can see many small children and only one adult. If one child grabs attention [of an adult], the rest of the children remain unsupervised.

Sarig: I put them in gan and I go out of the gan and sometimes on the way I am crying, because I have no idea what is happening in the gan when I am not there.

Announcer: After this bitter experience from the start  of the year, the trend is strengthening of parents who are willing to return to paying for a private preschool.

Roth: Their intentions are good. But the way it has been implemented is problematic and there are parents here who have taken their children out of the free education system and placed them in private preschools.

Berkel: It’s going to cost me an extra NIS 2000 a month. But there are no options remaining. Ishi Beck, owner of a chain of private preschools: Parents are starting to telephone us, inquiring about re-registering their children.

Announcer: The most promising reform of the Trachtenberg report, free education for preschoolers, is extracting a heavy price from the children.

My summary: 

I understand that these reports only tell one side of the story. I imagine (and hope) the situation is better in most ganim. Yet I ask again, even if our kids are okay, are the schedule and level of staffing acceptable for a developed country? Kindergarten teachers might be able to toilet-train ten kids in a month (!), but they are not miracle-workers. We need to be demanding more staff and adequate food.  By the way, the union has threatened to go on strike over the diapers.

Thanks to reader Amanda for the picture of her daughter on her first day of gan.

Tomorrow, look for my report on the struggle of the assistants.


  1. How do you toilet train 10 kids in a month. And is forced training really a good thing?

  2. When I heard about this, I thought it was the most ridiculous policy ever. I’m the mother of a 3-y-o and it’s nice to save a few hundred shekels a month on gan fees, but from an economic standpoint it makes no sense. Low income families were already paying next-to-nothing for gan on a sliding-scale system (the lowest level was just 50-70 shekels per month).
    So make it free for them (if you must) but what is the point of extending free gan to everyone? How does that help the people most in need?
    Strangely enough there has not been any jump in enrollment in our neighborhood gans. It seems all the kids were already in gan anyway!

  3. There need to be more semi-private ganim where the state pays the basic, and the parents can chip in for an extra sayaat.

    Plenty of parents would be happy to pay ~200 shekels a month for a second sayaat. (There are ganim like this.)

    I’ve lucked out so far. My son is in gan with 25 and 2 staff members (decent, imo), and my daughter is in a gan shiluv (which means that kids who were in gan safa last year are in gan with ‘regular’ kids), so they’re 35 kids with 3-4 staff members at a time. (and this is gan chova).

    • My 4yo son has been in a semi-private gan since last year, and even they’ve experienced some changes. Last yr we were olim hadashim so we got a discount; they had 2 main teachers and 3 rotating part-time assistants for 35 children. This year they have the 2 teachers and 2 assts. for 40 children. It’s still not so bad, considering the kids are a bit older (most are already 4yo). So far we’ve been extremely happy with his gan, but we’ll see how the changes will play out.

  4. I’m way past the stage of mothering toddlers, but this report makes my stomach churn. This policy would ruin a generation.

  5. Funny enough, there are fewer kids in my daughter’s classes this year. last year (our first in the gan system) my oldest was in a class of 35. this year my next daughter (in the photo!) only has 27 in her class at the same gan. I’m not thrilled with the saayat and they really hate letting them out early like the misrad says they have to. In fact, they out and out refused to give her to my husband yesterday at 1:45.

  6. That is pretty grim, but my experience with gan a couple of years ago was that the claim that parents have no clue what’s going on is mostly not true. When my son was in a mixed 3-4 year old gan, no one really cared if you dropped your kid off at 9 or even later, and if you needed to pick up early you had to fill in some paperwork but it was no big deal. And of course sometimes you’d have to stop by in the middle of the day if your kid was sick or left aruchat eser at home. So there were people walking in and out of the gan almost all day long. If the kids were just wetting themselves and crying all day, we would have known about it.
    And are we really claiming simultaneously that the gananot are so overwhelmed that they are unable to do anything meaningful with the kids, and also that the gananot are completely inflexible about letting parents drop off late and pick up early? Because unless they are colossally stupid, overwhelned gananot with a room full of screaming children will be thrilled if you drop off late or pick up early. If they are giving you a hard time it must mean that they actually have things in order and are doing meaningful things with them!

  7. I am not happy with the idea of letting anyone be in charge of ones children until the age of five.

  8. Another result of the free ganim from 3 is that the trom and chova gan’s have had their budget’s cut and are also filled to capacity and have not gotten the extra ganenot as required by law. I have heard parents say things like “since you aren’t paying for gan 3 you can afford to supplement gan chova” when the discount doesn’t affect all parents. Free gan has wider repercussions. It will probably be solved at some point but the kids are the guinea pigs.

  9. Wow. This article made me cry, it’s so, so sad. Even if this is happening in just ONE city gan, it’s so wrong. Thank you Hannah for writing about this and bringing attention to it. This isn’t about being pro-day care or against day care for young children, this is about providing SAFE, HEALTHY, and REASONABLE care for those that want and need it. They shouldn’t offer it if they can’t provide it right.

  10. That sounds just awful. We put our son in iriya gan last year, but we were lucky that his gan happens to be small – only 22 kids. He was almost 3, and we made sure to toilet train him before he started – as far as I knew, that was the rule with iriya gan – they had to be trained to go. It wasn’t so different from the private gan that he’d been in the year before, where there were I think 14 or 15 children with 2 adults. If having to provide free gan has meant non-toilet trained children now I can only imagine how insane the situation is with 2 ganenot and 35 kids. My son is in the same gan this year, and although there are a lot of 3 year olds, I don’t think there are any that aren’t toilet trained, and the number has still been capped at 22 kids. Most of the ganim in the area are the more usual 35 kids, we just happened to be lucky to be near to this one.

  11. Well, with all due respect this does seem an exageration. I think distinction should be made between the number of children in the kindergarten etc. and the fact that buoildings have been built quickly with insufficient or inappropriate facilities and no toys

    We live in an area where there has been a municiple kindergarten for 3 year olds for over 15 years (with no private frameworks at all). There are 35 kids with 2 adults, that is how it is, the teachers worked with them and no one complained. At one time there was a rule that children has to be toilet trained, but the misrad hahinuch cancelled this maybe 10 years ago, along with the demand that parents arrive at the gan to deal with children who “had an accident”.

    The gan receives the whole range of children, from those born in January, till those in december (i.e. from 3 years and nine months to 2 years and nine months), so proportionately the ages are spread out. How many chidlren of that whole range are generally not toilet trained??

    There is not doubt that a gananet who is suited to working with older children does not always have the appropriate approach or mindset to work with the smallest ones, and therefore these ladies may be finding this difficult.

    However, such a situation has been going on for a long time in many places, without that catastrophic situations described.

    It is probably quite correct that establishing a lot of buildings in a big hurry made the situation more difficult to deal with.

  12. We also have “gan iriya” from age 3 in our area, but I was sure that being trained was a requirement – at least that’s how the city represented it to us when we went to fill out the forms.
    I hope parents will read this article… because it’s important to look at your particular child and make a judgement call. My oldest went to city gan at 3.5 (though there were 3 adults there – I can’t imagine how two teachers can manage 35 kids that age). We thought our daughter was ready for the change, but there are a lot of three year olds who aren’t. And what on earth are 2-year-olds doing in that kind of a framework??? I know how it works with birth dates, but when it comes to kids this small, they need to put the cutoff at three and that’s it.
    I would love to see the ministry offer the option to have a child evaluated by a professional and then hear that person’s recommendation – even if you don’t have to follow it – I’d be willing to pay for that. Putting kids who are too small into gan iriya screws it up for all the kids.