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Once in a lifetime chance to be a head

It is 13 years since Italy appointed any permanent heads. This time 38,000 applied. David Newbold reports

ITALY

Ten thousand candidates have been selected to sit exams in the first recruitment round for permanent headteacher appointments for 13 years.

While some countries such as Ireland are struggling to find more than one applicant per headteacher post, in Italy the 10,000 were chosen from 38,000 applicants.

Like other teachers and public sector workers, heads are selected through a competitive exam (concorso).

This will be used to whittle numbers down to the 1,500 needed to fill vacant posts.

There are four stages to the process: an initial selection based on qualifications, length of service and posts of responsibility; a written exam; an interview; and a seven-month in-service training course with final assessment for the 1,500 who pass the interview stage.

For many candidates the concorsi are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Successful candidates will take up their posts in September 2006.

Candidate Vanda de Bori, a scuola media teacher in north-east Italy, said the exam was good "because it tests cultural and organisational competence and the chances of someone being appointed because he or she knows the right people are minimal."

The high costs of organising concorsi are one reason they are so infrequent. But the long gap between them swells the numbers of candidates, adding to costs and organisational difficulties. The last, and final, national concorso for teachers drew 1.3 million applicants.

Headteacher vacancies that arise between recruitment competitions are filled by supply heads appointed annually. Their number has grown steadily over the past decade. The struggle to find a supply head leads to chaos at the start of each school year. In Rome, up to 150 out of 600 schools start the year without a permanent head.

The new appointees will have more responsibilities than their predecessors.

In the past heads were bureaucrats whose job was to ensure centralised programmes were implemented, and who had no control over their budget. But new laws devolving power to the regions and ongoing reforms mean heads will control all budget items except teachers' salaries, and have a role in curriculum planning, as well as becoming legally responsible for schools.

They will have a new name, too. The words for secondary head (preside) and primary head (direttore) have been replaced by dirigente scolastico, a term which underlines their managerial role.

Schools have changed since the early 1990s. Hundreds of primaries have joined with middle schools to form new istituti comprensivi, reducing the number of heads and increasing the size of schools.

New heads will have to grapple with complex reforms, and also face up to the problem of how best to integrate the growing numbers of immigrants from developing countries into their schools.

New appointees are sent to a school where there is a vacancy, and have no choice about where they end up. So for many it will mean moving home. And the rewards are not great. The starting salary is e36,000 (pound;24,400) before tax.

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