Skip to main content

An offer I had to refuse

Faced with an illegal and discriminatory contract, a British EFL teacher decided to take on the full bureaucratic might of the Italian state. Five years later his extraordinary one-man campaign is paying off, turning him into an unlikely champion of teachers' rights across Europe. David Newbold reports

David Petrie draws himself up straight in the ancient leather armchair. "This," he says, "is the biggest legal case in the history of the EU." With three rulings by the European Court of Justice, a resolution by the European parliament, and more than 1,000 legal actions taken against the Italian state by foreign language teachers, many of them British, it is not difficult to believe him.

Five years ago Mr Petrie was sacked from his job as an English teacher at the University of Verona, a stone's throw from his flat in the run-down quarter of Veronetta. Across the river are some smart shops and the famous balcony where, says the local tourist office, Romeo and Juliet played out their rather different Italian drama. Mr Petrie was sacked because, along with 21 language teacher colleagues from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, the US and Russia, he refused to sign a contract that downgraded him to non-teaching status. Since then his flat in via Trezza has become the nerve centre of a one-man campaign to ensure mobility of teachers according to EU law.

A large brass plaque on the door of the building bears the name of a psychotherapist offering "rational emotive therapy" (the sort you go for if there's nothing really the matter with you, says Mr Petrie), but most of the visitors seem to be for David Petrie, the name on a small tag below. Teachers of all nationalities drop by for information and advice. The phone never stops ringing. "And it's not just people working in this country," he says. "I've had enquiries from people in Sweden, Austria, Spain and Britain, usually about recognition of qualifications." He has also had a call from the British government - next month he is due to to discuss his campaign at the Foreign Office.

The battle, he explains, is about the reluctance of member states to accept the full consequences of giving up a part of their sovereignty. Free movement of people and goods is enshrined in the treaty on which the EU is founded. But whereas the free movement of goods is relatively simple, the mobility of professionally qualified people is a more sensitive issue. British-qualified teachers should now be able to apply for jobs anywhere in the EU - and, thanks to the pre-eminence of English as an international language, the market for their skills is growing. Yet some states continue to discriminate against non-nationals in defiance of EU rules.

Mr Petrie's own experience is emblematic. A British qualified teacher with a degree in social studies from Dundee and an EFL qualification from London, he worked as an English language teacher in England, Greece and Libya before returning to Glasgow to start a second degree, in law. He never finished it, though he has hardly lost a taste for the subject. "I took fright at the prospect of a lifetime in conveyancing. What most interested me was legal theory."

Then, while on holiday in Italy in 1981, he applied for a job in a language school in Padua and got it. In 1984 he moved to the University of Verona - and the problems began. After two weeks he was fired because the university said it had no money to pay him. He got his job back, but on terms he found unacceptable. "They were in breach of EU legislation, because non-Italians were being offered different contracts from their Italian colleagues. Italian teachers in schools and universities are civil servants with tenure. We were excluded from applying. Our qualifications were not recognised, or were irrelevant, and the only contracts available to us were for a maximum of one year, renewable for up to five years."

So the European adventure began. Mr Petrie returned to Glasgow to consult his former teacher, Noreen Burrows, professor of European law at Glasgow University. She put him in touch with the MEP for Strathclyde West, Hugh McMahon, who agreed to champion the cause.

The battle was first taken to Europe by British and German teachers working in the universities of Parma and Venice in 1989. An initial ruling by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg found in the teachers' favour, but the Italian state claimed the judgment was ambiguous. "They pretended not to understand," says Mr Petrie. So the teachers went back to the courts. As a result of a second ruling, in 1993, legislation was finally introduced in Italy, making it possible for non-Italians to have open-ended contracts. But at the same time the posts they held were downgraded to those of non-teaching "technical" staff. "It was if they were saying 'OK, you've won that one, but don't think you're real teachers'," says Mr Petrie.

Over the next couple of years, teachers all over the country were pressured by the universities into signing the new contracts, which effectively deprived them of a career structure available through a range of increments to Italian colleagues. Nationwide, about 70 per cent of the 1,500 foreign teachers signed. The rest resisted, joined a union that Mr Petrie founded - Associazione Lettori di Lingua Straniera in Italia (ALLSI) - and were sacked.

David Petrie, now unemployed, sought a third ruling. He and two colleagues from Verona had been barred from applying to do supply teaching in their own subject - English language - and their courses had been given to Italians. Lobbying of the European parliament began in earnest. "I've been there at least 20 times," says Mr Petrie. "People know me there by sight, and say hello."

As the nature and extent of the problem became apparent, cross-party support grew. After all, what was the point of a united Europe if language teachers, of all people, could not move freely from one country to another and be entitled to the basic rights enjoyed by nationals?

Mr Petrie organised a series of coach trips to Strasbourg, and took along students as well as colleagues to lobby MEPs. The novelist Tim Parks, who was a colleague at Verona, went along on one of these.

In his novel Europa, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997, Tim Parks apparently chronicles the lobbying experience in a fictional account of a sex-crazed romp across Europe, "He was a good lobbyist," says Mr Petrie, "but when he came round one day with a manuscript, I knew something was wrong."

The novel's protagonist turned out to be a rather too familiar skinny Scotsman with unusual sexual habits. "I couldn't see anything of merit in the book. It was pure fantasy. But I realised it would be seen as fact, and could damage our campaign."

He faxed Tim Parks to say that he couldn't guarantee he wouldn't sue if the book was published. The book came out, but the main character had become a half-Indian Welshman. "I don't know why it couldn't have just been someone from southern England," reflects Mr Petrie.

Some of the mud stuck. "Once, in a restaurant in Brussels, I was introduced to a British MEP. 'Oh, are you the shagger?' he asked." But Mr Petrie laughs this off. The truth is, he enjoys the lobbying and has developed a taste for being at the centre of a legal battle. "I find it fascinating that, as an ordinary citizen, I knocked on an MEP's door, kept knocking, and in the end was invited to Strasbourg by the commissioner to present my case."

In 1995 the parliament passed a resolution supporting Mr Petrie's case. And finally, in 1997, the European court ruled that Italy was discriminating against EU citizens, in violation of Article 48 of the EUTreaty. That judgment put David Petrie in the spotlight. He has been on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, done several interviews for the BBC, and was shortlisted for last year's Australian Broadcasting Corporation "European of the Year" award. "I was runner-up," he says. "The winner was a Russian who blew the whistle on nuclear waste stockpiling. You can't argue against that."

In April this year Mr Petrie was finally re-instated in his job by the highest court in Italy. The University of Verona has been ordered to pay damages which could amount to more than pound;50,000. "It'll be nice to be able to buy a new shirt," says Mr Petrie, who has survived for five years on a few private lessons and the "embarrassing generosity" of an Italian businessman, the husband of a colleague at Rome University, who "kept slipping cheques into my pocket". Italian nationals, it seems, can be as outraged by home-grown bureaucracy as foreigners trying to scrape a living.

And for all the support from Europe he couldn't have done it without a good lawyer in Italy. Here, Mr Petrie admits, he had a stroke of luck. "In provincial Italy it isn't easy to find a lawyer willing to take on the local university. Career-wise it could be a bad move. About 10 years ago I was consulting a lawyer for family reasons. I told her about the problem with the university, and asked her if she knew anyone who was 100 per cent reliable, an expert in European law, and who wouldn't be afraid to fight the system. 'I think I do,' she said, 'my husband.'" The two men got on immediately. At the time Lorenzo Picotti was himself a junior university teacher, as well as a practising lawyer, so he knew the system well. But Mr Petrie was worried that Signore Picotti's career might be jeopardised if he took on the case. His fears were unfounded. Signore Picotti now holds the chair in penal law at the neighbouring university of Trent, and represents 350 language teachers across Italy. He and Mr Petrie are in almost daily contact and have twice made the journey together to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

David Petrie gets up from the armchair and walks across to a table piled high with documents. He picks up a wooden box and opens it. "It's an Edwardian pipe box," he explains. "It belonged to my grandfather. It's a sort of family heirloom. We're having a party in June, and I'm going to give it to Lorenzo. It's just a small thank you."

Not that the battle is over. "The Italian nationality requirement for public sector jobs such as teaching has disappeared, and that must be due in part to what we've done. But there's a lot that remains to be done on the recognition of teaching qualifications from other EU states."

And the European Commission has not yet finished with Italy, a country with which it frequently clashes (at the last count the commission had launched 251 "infringement proceedings" against Italy; only France has offended more often). The European court is expected to rule very soon on the persistent evasion of its judgments relating to the Petrie case. If the ruling goes against the Italians, as seems likely, monthly or even daily fines might be imposed. And David Petrie is still right up there in the front line. The British government is vigorously backing the commission and has asked him to brief the Foreign Office.

In the meantime it's back to the chalkface and the computer. Mr Petrie, 50 this year, is teaching again, and has started writing a book about his experiences. The working title is Rubber Wall. I ask for an explanation.

"Once I was summoned to Rome to talk to the department that negotiates national contracts. While I was there I was given some advice by a friendly civil servant. 'You'll still be at this when you're an old man,' she said. 'I know the Italian state. It's a rubber wall. You can throw what you like at it but it never falls down.' I reminded her that people said the same sort of thing about the wall in Berlin."


The nationality requirement has now officially been removed for EU citizens applying for teaching jobs in Italian state schools. But the case of one British teacher, Catherine Witherby, demonstrates how the continued failure to recognise non-Italian qualifications makes it difficult for even the most determined foreign applicant to get a job. Recognised teacher status from another EU state is irrelevant, as the selection procedure for all teachers in Italy takes the form of a competitive exam open to everyone with a degree. Known as the concorso, 1.3 million people took it in exam centres across Italy in 1999.

But when Ms Witherby, a British primary teacher with a BAQTS from Warwick, applied to sit the exam (see Friday, February 4, 2000), she was refused on the grounds that her degree hadn't been recognised as "equivalent" by an Italian university.

Italian universities typically prefer to ask foreign graduates to sign on at the university, pay the fees, and sit extra exams, after which (if they pass) they are awarded the equipollenza. It's a bit like doing the same degree twice.

When Ms Witherby, who lives in Trieste with her Italian husband, pointed out that she was already a qualified primary teacher, she was told she should also do the Italian school-leaving exam (maturit... magistrale), which is taken by 18-year-olds intending to become primary teachers.

In other words, a British qualified teacher was being invited to retake the equivalent of her A-levels and her degree in order to be allowed to apply to take an exam to obtain a status she already had.

British and US teaching agencies, desperate to attract new staff, are now advertising in the Italian press for qualified teachers to work in their schools. Ironically, the formal Italian qualification they recognise is the one that Catherine Witherby was told she couldn't apply for.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you