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One evening last week, 15 teachers from the city gathered outside the conference hall in Be'er Sheva. Education Minister Yuli Tamir's festive conference on the New Horizon reforms was about to start, but the teachers refused to go inside. A few of them were holding a placard decrying the reform that Tamir is leading: 40 (more) hours of work = NIS 1,000 in salary, it said. A number of teachers even pasted an "X" over their mouths - to signal the prevalent sense that the Education Ministry is not encouraging any criticism of the reform. Only after some effort do the demonstrators agree to enter the hall, but the feeling of distrust remains.

The "information campaign" that Tamir has been conducting around the country - a well-planned media blitz - is trying to instill two assumptions: One is that the reform is a success as manifested inter alia in a salary increase for teachers and in the close connection between teachers and students being created by the work with small groups of students in the framework of "individual hours." Secondly, the reform is a fait accompli, from which no one is going to retreat. No doubt, the government's cloudy future adds to the marketing fervor. It includes a series of school visits, meetings with local authority heads, educational conferences to which teachers and parents are invited and a TV ad produced by the Teachers' Association in which members praise the reforms.

Tamir's timetable is demanding: departure in the early morning hours and return around midnight. Every day the minister and senior staffers visit two or three schools and hold at least one education conference. The slogan across the bus they use declares: The Education System Is Setting Out on a New Path.

Before the start of each visit Tamir's aides come to prepare the ground: Huge banners are hung on walls, and information booths set up within seconds. When the visit is done, everything is packed up and sent on its way to the next stop.

Why teachers still fear and criticize the reform? There are several reasons for this - the fragmentary information given out last year about salary and terms of employment; the insufficiently clarified ways of working as "individual hours" and - contrary to what they had been promised - the teachers are still required to work at home during afternoons and evenings. These factors have not made it possible to "win hearts."

Unconvinced audience

At the conference in Be'er Sheva Tamir promised she would not force the reform on schools in which the majority of teachers opposed it. Some of the demonstrators remained unconvinced.

"The way it looks from inside the air-conditioned bus, and even after a half-hour visit to a school, everything looks wonderful," says one of them. "But despite all the promises, we are still teaching in crowded classrooms, without a minimal infrastructure like bathrooms or corners for the teachers and, above all, we will still be working during the afternoon. The additional salary that we will receive is not worth all the extra work."

Tziona Mashiah, a teacher at eh Eshkol School in Be'er Sheva, adds: "There is no alternative but to take the 'individual hours' students out into the corridor. Most of these hours are given at the end of the day, when the children aren't concentrating any more. When those are the conditions, it isn't clear what good this reform is doing," she said.

Real achievements

In contrast to Mashiah and the teachers around her, Bat Sheva Cohen, who teaches at the Rabin School in Netivot, says that "it is hard to give an adequate answer to 35 students in a classroom. The 'individual hours' give me an opportunity to help students I had so much wanted to help. After a year during which the program has been in operation, it is already possible to see a real improvement in the achievements."

Tamir believes that a correct information campaign will overcome all of the difficulties: This month, for example, the teachers who are slated to join the reform will receive a personal letter with salary details about their pay prior to the reform and after it.

At the Education Ministry they are also saying that the "individual hours" are given throughout the school day.

"No agreement can solve all to the problems of the education system at once," says the chairman of the Association of Education Department Directors in Local Councils, Avi Kaminsky. "We were always shouting that it is necessary to improve the teachers' salaries, and that it was necessary to change the interaction between the student and the teacher. The reform ties these two issues together."

On the way back to Tel Aviv from Be'er Sheva, Tamir says: "There was a moment last year when we knew there was money and it was necessary to take it for the benefit of education. In the current state of the economy, there is no chance of receiving a budget of NIS 5.5 billion. Therefore, it was a clear decision to start implementing the reform, even if the agreement was not finally signed. Had we waited and done it 'perfectly,' we would not have accomplished anything."