Italy: A new puzzle for Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, the semiotics guru and author, and Riccardo Muti, musical director of La Scala, the Milan opera house, have been drafted in by the Italian government to provide ideas for the first major reform of the curriculum since the days of Fascism.

They will join a think-tank of 37 other luminaries of public life, including Rita Levi Montalcini, Nobel prize-winner for medicine, and former prime minister Giuliano Amato.

The job to be done will need all their concerted talent. Numerous attempts have been made to overhaul the system in the past, and come to nothing. The only major reform since Giovanni Gentile wrote his 1923 programmi was the creation of the scuola media, for pupils aged 11 to 14, in 1962. Since then, there have been organisational changes (such as the introduction of team teaching in primary schools), but the underlying structure has remained untouched.

Coincidentally, it is the scuola media which disappears in the projected reform, losing its first year to a prolonged primary cycle, known as the scuola di base, and years 2 and 3 to a vocationally-inspired scuola di orientamento which would bring compulsory education to an end at 15, compared with 14 at present.

Pupils could then go on to a higher three-year cycle which would prepare them for university entrance; this cycle would be a reduced version of the scuola superiore, which at present caters for 14-19 year-olds.

One of the major triumphs - or pieces of trickery - of the on-paper reform is that it seems to offer more school in less time. It prolongs compulsory education by two years (by making the final year of nursery school compulsory), while at the same time bringing forward by one year the end of the scuola superiore.

Education minister Luigi Berlinguer wants to present the project to Parliament next month after achieving a consensus. In the past, with governments shortlived and educational reform remaining a long-term objective, this would have been wishful thinking, but the general feeling is that a reform which would bring Italy more in line with European partners can no longer be postponed; and by enlisting the help of celebrities to draw up the curriculum Berlinguer's strategy is to add kudos to credibility.

So far, the projected reform has not met with a lot of opposition. The Vatican, through the influential standing conference of Italian bishops, has made some veiled comments about the risk of "cultural decline", but is mostly interested in a law on parity between state and private (largely Catholic) sectors.

The main opposition party, television magnate Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, has commented on the "total vagueness" of the reform, which it calls "more conservative than innovative". The party's education spokesperson, Piero Melograni, would like practical skills such as map-reading, household budgeting and electrical repairs to find their way into the curriculum, as well as the basics of educazione civica - in which he would include "learning how to keep the volume of the TV turned down". But Forza Italia agrees on the new five to 15 age limits of compulsory schooling.

The mass of teachers, however, worried about their own futures against a backdrop of declining rolls and meagre salaries, seem more perplexed about practical implications than hostile to the spirit of the reform.

David Newbold

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