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The Education Ministry and the secondary school teachers' union have been in negotiations in recent weeks to develop a plan for a comprehensive reform of secondary education in Israel.

According to sources involved in the talks, while there has been progress made on educational aspects of the reform, negotiations with the Finance Ministry have been much more difficult and slow going.

Among the proposed changes are dividing the school year into two semesters and concentrating exams during an interim vacation period that would be scheduled during the winter, around the holiday of Tu Bishvat. It has also been suggested that the number of national matriculation exams, which are administered by the Education Ministry, would be reduced and that some of them would be administered by high schools instead. The authority of school principals would also be expanded through the use of personal employment contracts, and they would have a new salary scale.

Negotiations between the union and government ministries began about a month ago and have consisted of two meetings per week. Talks with the Education Ministry have involved a range of educational issues, whereas contacts with treasury officials have focused on a salary increase of about 26 percent for teachers and particularly what they will be asked to perform in return, apparently involving an increase in hours. Several sources have said the overall reform plan would require a budget of about one billion shekels.

The parties hope to come to an agreement by the beginning of January, with the intention to implement the plan at the start of the next school year. Sources say agreement has been reached so far on a broad range of issues. Among the provisions of the suggested plan is a proposal that some subjects, such as math, English and Hebrew, would be taught throughout the school year, while others, such as civics, would be taught more intensively but only for one semester.

The plan also provides for a 10-day vacation between semesters. One source said exams would be administered during that vacation to free up other days that would be devoted solely to instruction. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has in recent months been promoting a policy directing schools to take maximum advantage of instruction time during the academic year. Scheduling matriculation exams during the break between semesters is expected to ease the burden on teachers, who will write and grade fewer exams. It has not yet been determined which vacations would be shortened to provide for the new vacation days.

Expanding the use of alternative grading methods for matriculation exams is also being explored. The scheduling of winter matriculation exams have been a source of disagreement during the negotiations.

Teacher representatives have supported the idea of cancelling the winter exam period, but on the condition that this would make it possible to move the beginning of the summer exams and in practice expand the number of available days of classroom instruction. In practice, classroom instruction in the higher grades currently ends around April.

Others suggest, however, that the exams contribute substantially to students' academic achievements and that they are an essential component of the plan to divide the school year into two semesters. The future of second-chance exams during the summer has not yet been resolved either. On the other hand, the issue over school principals' status has resulted in a greater consensus regarding separate salary scales for teachers and principals, the use of personal employment contracts for principals and broader authority for principals in hiring and firing teachers.

One reason negotiations with the Finance Ministry have been proceeding more slowly than those with the Education Ministry has to do with concern over the implications of prior assurances given to the head of the primary school teachers' union, Yossi Wasserman - that any improved terms provided to the secondary school teachers would also be given to elementary school teachers.