By Mayor Michael BITON.

Mayor Michael Biton

Mayor Michael Biton

There are around 950,000 pre-school children in Israel aged under six and, to ensure their formative years are rich in physical and emotional growth, we must create the appropriate environments for them to thrive in.

Numerous studies point to the importance of healthy investment in early childhood, which according to economists, generates the best returns.

This is a shared consensus among many professionals from a broad range of fields, including neurobiologists, brain researchers, economists, psychologists and educators, who believe our early experiences and relationships play a crucially influential role on how we conduct ourselves in later life.

In Israel, data shows that of all children aged six and already entering the educational system, only 80 percent will reach the equivalent of their second year of A-Levels, but just 70 percent will go on to write their final exams. Fewer than half will achieve the grades required to be eligible for a university placement and, unfortunately, only a third will go on to further education.

Therefore, it is believed that investing in the pre-school ages will improve these figures significantly.

In the small town of Yerucham in the Negev desert, a major priority for me as mayor is to ensure we build the services necessary to give our young children a better start in life and to ensure we invest in the most important stage of development.

With JNF UK’s help, we will soon open an Early Childhood Centre, which will accommodate the needs of babies and young children under one roof. The campus will offer a range of quality activities for families. The programmes will include a treatment unit, training for teenage parents, and skill-building for professional childcarers.

It will be a comprehensive one-stop shop with accessibility for Yerucham’s neediest and most vulnerable children and their parents.

Investment in disadvantaged young children is shown to significantly reduce inequalities in adult life, in economic terms and the impact on human potential, and JNF UK is helping to make this possible with the generous support of the British Jewish community.

In fact, the Jewish community and JNF UK have been a welcome support structure in the Negev for many years, with some fantastic charitable projects taking place in Yerucham, such as the Ayalim Association, which encourages students to volunteer their time to help build the community.

Outside of my town, they support projects across the region. These credentials are what makes JNF UK a major contributing charity to the development of the Negev. Regionally, there are still many challenges to overcome, and it’s an ongoing undertaking.

On a larger scale, the issue of Israel’s widening socio- economic gap is mounting. According to recent data, Israel’s poverty rate is the highest out of 34 of the developed OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) economies. Israel also has one of the highest levels of income inequality, with virtually no improvement to its inequality rating.

Specifically, we have seen a significant increase in poverty among children and young people. There is a lot of work to be done to combat these challenges. As it stands in Israel today, the responsibility for early childhood care is divided across four key ministries: education, industry, health and welfare.

They also often join with other ministries and local authorities to oversee the many other aspects related to the wellbeing, development and protection of children.

In addition to these services for pre-school children, specifically those intended for youngsters under the age of three, there are also services provided by NGOs, private businesses and public organisations.

While this may sound highly inclusive, it is widely regarded that splitting responsibility and authority is not ideal to achieving common objectives. As a result of the disjointed situation, there is a fragmented approach to childcare and access to services and educational frameworks are not consistent across the board.

In Yerucham, we have tried to keep it as simple as possible, turning to like-minded partners to realise our goal. It is thanks mainly to the incredible work of philanthropic organisations, such as JNF UK, that we are able to make tangible efforts to build the Early Childhood Centre.

This support has helped raise awareness of the importance of investment during the early years. To attract more people to the Negev, and to Yerucham specifically, I am committed to continuing the crucial support and services for families. The Centre in Yerucham will be an excellent example of that.

I urge British Jewry to stand by the JNF UK team to help give the children of Yerucham the future they deserve.

• Join JNF UK and Jewish News for a live Q&A event this Saturday night with Mayor Biton, as part of the Charity’s Green Sunday Appeal. Visit http://www.jnf.co.uk/biton/ for more details