A FREAK bulge in pupil numbers is threatening the first overall reform of the education system since the 1920s.
Unless preventative action is taken, Disaster Day will be some time in September 2007. Instead of the usual half million or so pupils who start secondary school every year, twice that number will turn up - a clear recipe for chaos.
The onda anomala (freak wave), is the result of reducing the final year of school and university entrance age from 19 to 18. The missing year will be pruned from the scuola media (middle school), which disappears in the reform and will be absorbed into the scuola di base, an extended primary school for pupils aged six to 13.
With the new system of seven years of scuola di base being phased in from this year alongside the existing system (five years of scuola elementare followed by three years of scuola media), a generation of old-system 14-year-olds will converge in 2007 with their 13-year-old new-system counterparts on the upper secondary schools.
Unless, that is, somebody does something about it. To break up the wave, a ministry think tank has come up with a complicated plan of class leap frog.
The idea is for up to 25 per cent of old-system puils to skip a year, taking them into the scuola superiore ahead of time. Pupils could be singled out by schools to make the year jump from their third year in the scuola elementare.
But no one seems to like the idea. Teachers fear that pupils who jump a year may not be able to make up the curriculum gaps, and are worried about the criteria, still to be decided, for selecting "jumpers". Parents' associations have expressed doubts about the psychological effect on children who have to adapt to a class of older pupils.
"What sort of welcome will they be given?" asks Angela Nava, president of the Democratic Parents Group.
The strongest opposition has come from the unions, which are, nonetheless, in favour of the reform. For them, the solution is to deal with the wave when it comes by having more classes for a limited period.
But the problem may not arise if the centre-right alliance led by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi returns to power in the general election scheduled for May 13.
Education spokesperson for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, Valentina Aprea, has said the first thing they will do will be to put back the missing year in the scuola di base. But, she added: "If the present government's plan does go ahead, I hope the Left are still in power in 2007 when the wave arrives."