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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the future of education yesterday with Ran Erez, head of the Secondary School Teachers Association, in their first meeting since the teachers began striking some two months ago.

Erez said after the meeting, which took place during a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the Prime Minister's Residence, that Olmert spoke in general terms about the need to invest in the education system, but the SSTA leader insisted the teachers couldn't be "bought with candle-lighting and a cup of tea."

The meeting did not directly address the strike, which will be the subject of official negotiations slated to take place today. The back-to-work orders for the secondary school teachers are to go into effect Thursday.

"The prime minister repeated a few times that he expects the teachers to return to school Thursday, that we will conduct productive negotiations with the finance and education ministers, and that he is giving them his full support," said Erez. "All the participants agreed that the educational system is in ruins."

Education Minister Yuli Tamir and the directors general of the Prime Minister's Office, Education Ministry and treasury also took part in yesterday's meeting, as did teachers union secretary general Yossi Wasserman, senior Education Ministry officials and several educators.

"The prime minister wanted to know about the primary troubles of education," one participant said. "He promised to take care of the problems and repeated the commitment to improve teachers' status, but also made it clear that it's impossible to fix all the problems of the past at once."

The participants were split over the goal of the meeting, with some arguing that it was to show the prime minister's personal interest in the educational crisis, and others maintaining that the event was meant merely for media consumption.