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Minister defends 'return to past' strategy

ITALY. New education minister Luigi Berlinguer has a lot to think about this summer.

He has been given a year by Romano Prodi, the prime minister, to reform the whole system and has decided to start with small strategic changes. The minister is hoping that the great reform - decentralisation with full operational autonomy for individual schools - will follow naturally.

"I am a member of a federalist government which intends to decentralise, but it must not be forgotten that the education system is a national service witha national curriculum," said Berlinguer.

None the less, the minister believes that the policy of recruiting teachers locally (the key issue in the education manifesto of Umberto Bossi's Northern League), replacing the current unwieldy system of national exams, can be implemented.

He also thinks that raising the school-leaving age to 16 (a thorn in the flesh of a dozen of his predecessors) can be achieved without a "revolution".

Berlinguer's main concern seems to be to reform the exam system. The maturita school-leaving exam, taken by most pupils at the age of 19, was modified 27 years ago in the wake of violent student protest.

Instead of being tested across the range of subjects, two subjects would be pulled out of the hat in April for the written exam in June, and another two topics agreed on (by candidate and examiners) for the orals.

This post-1968 exam was intended as a temporary measure, but temporary measures in Italy have a habit of acquiring near permanence.

The minister thinks the time has come to go back to the testing of all subjects.

However, to reduce the anguish of candidates, he wants to see examining boards drawn from teaching staff of the candidate's own institution, with just one external examiner to guarantee fair play. This would have the added advantage of reducing costs.

Critics view the prospect as a return to the past; the minister has defended himself by saying that it is a return to "a school which teaches".

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