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Athletes leap to defence of school PE lessons

ITALY

A government plan to halve the number of physical education lessons in secondary schools has been greeted with disbelief by teachers and parents.

In the final stage of the reform of the licei (upper secondary school), introduced by the Berlusconi centre-right government, two compulsory hours a week of PE are to be cut to just one, with the second hour becoming optional. Pupils will have to choose three hours of "compulsory optional subjects" to complete a 30-hour week. Many teachers believe that parents will prefer children to opt for more academic subjects.

Italy already compares unfavourably with European partners when it comes to sport at school. PE is compulsory only from age 11, but sports facilities are often poor, with outdoor facilities the exception rather than the norm.

Inter-school competition in sports is negligible.

Paradoxically, Italian interest in sport, especially minor sports, has never been higher. Even the smallest towns have private gyms and "wellness" centres; the Gazzetta dello Sport is the highest-selling daily paper; and in the Athens Olympics, Italy finished eighth, two places ahead of Great Britain, winning gold in such disparate sports as gymnastics, fencing, archery and the marathon.

Italy's Olympic Committee and athletes have led the criticism. Gianni Petrucci, president of the national committee, said sport at school is essential to keep Italy's Olympic hopes for the future alive, as well as providing a context in which to combat the drug-taking culture which has permeated much of professional sport.

The popular gymnast Yuri Chechi, who won gold in Atlanta 1996 and bronze in Athens, said the reform would "lead to a generation of obese school-leavers".

Following the announcement, the ministry was swamped by protest faxes and letters, while more than 10,000 emails were sent to a ministry email address for teacher comments. The protest was co-ordinated by the professional association of PE teachers, CAPDI, whose president, Flavio Cucco, told the Rome daily paper, La Repubblica: "If we're going to disappear, we don't want to do so in silence."

If ratified by parliament later this year, the reforms will be implemented in September 2006.

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