Young Italians wishing to become teachers in the 1990s have had to grit their teeth and wait up to eight years. With the last appointments made in 1994 for primary teachers, and in 1990 for their secondary colleagues, the average age of teachers has been rising over the past decade.
Now, at last, the profession's doors are to re-open, with a new round of concorsi, the competitive exams used to recruit all state-sector employees. The government is to organise new concorsi for aspiring teachers before the end of the year, but with more than a million young people expected to try their luck, logistical problems are inevitable. The first difficulty will be to find premises in each province large enough to accommodate the candidates.
In the past, concorsi were organised every year or two. As the school population grew in the 1970s, so did the number of concorsi. The urgent need for teachers led to simplified concorsi with high pass rates of up to 97 per cent. Since there is no initial training, this meant that virtually anyone could walk into the profession. By the 1980s Italy had found herself with the most favourable teacher-pupil ratio in Europe (1:9).
Though Italian teachers are among the continent's poorest paid, as civil servants they have jobs for life, and cannot be made redundant. With the economic crisis in the late 1980s, and falling school rolls, the government could only reduce the number of teachers by freezing recruitment. In the 1990s graduate would-be teachers have only been able to secure temporary supply posts.
In recent years the concorso system has attracted much criticism. The exam is felt to be inflexible, too subject-based, and with little or no attention to teaching issues.
So the ministry is considering extending the new concorso with a pre-quiz to test candidate's aptitude for the profession, as well as their knowledge of school legislation. The idea is to cream off the most suitable candidates and reduce the number sitting the main concorso.
But the days of the concorso may be numbered. Initial training, planned for almost 20 years, looks set to become a reality. When education minister Luigi Berlinguer took office in 1996 he re-activated a dormant piece of legislation dating from 1980 that would make it compulsory for primary teachers to do a four-year degree in education (at present they do not have to have degree).
Berlinguer also pushed though legislation introducing post-graduate training courses for secondary teachers, which would last two years and include 300 hours of teaching practice. With the course up and running - and the quality of trainees guaranteed by admission tests - the concorso could be put out to grass.
The first courses are planned to begin in October. But many teachers are concerned that education departments in universities are too out of touch with schools to be able to provide the practical training that new teachers need.