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The government and the teachers union officially agreed Wednesday to a new collective bargaining agreement for elementary and middle school teachers, thus concluding an 18-month long negotiation.

"After 60 years, we have managed, in cooperation with the state, to put education at the top of the list of priorities and to improve the standing of teachers and their work conditions," said Yossi Wasserman, the secretary-general of the primary school teachers union. The deal is estimated to cost NIS 5.5 billion.

Talks between the treasury and Education Ministry on one hand, and the union on the other will continue, as both sides haggle over clauses in the deal touching on work conditions for kindergarten and pre-school instructors.

"After years of attempting to enact reforms in education, we succeeded in reaching an agreement with the primary school teachers union," Eli Cohen, the treasury official in charge of public sector wages, said. "Wasserman was a true partner throughout the entire process, and he saw the good of the teacher and student [as paramount]."

"It was not certain we would receive this budget this year given the current economic situation," Education Minister Yuli Tamir told a conference in Be'er Sheva on Wednesday. "So it's good that we agreed to it this past year."

According to terms of the deal, teachers' salaries will rise by an average of 26 percent. In exchange, teachers will be required to work an additional 36 hours per week - rather than the current rate of 30 hours per week ? with 26 of those hours to be devoted to classroom instruction. The remainder of the hours are to be designated for private tutoring of students as well as after-school overtime.

The reform, which has been given the nickname "New Horizon," will impact some 250,000 students enrolled in close to 760 schools, 450 of which recently signed onto the initiative. Concurrently, the education ministry will move to reduce classroom size to 32 students in 600 other schools.

The reform also calls for an additional 900,000 "individual hours," during which teachers will work with small groups of students.