After years of corporate egalitarianism, a new contract has opened up the possibility of a career structure based on merit for Italy's teachers, so that good staff can be rewarded.
And it has paved the way for outstanding teachers to take a fast track to top salaries.
But how many good teachers are there in Italy? Education minister Giancarlo Lombardi estimated "around 30 per cent of teachers are really good at their jobs". "They work in difficult conditions and make continual sacrifices, " he said.
This figure was confirmed in an interview given to the Rome daily La Republica by a well-known sociologist and educationist from Pavia University, Alessandro Cavalli. "In general the quality of secondary level teaching is not good, " he explains. "You can't blame the teachers: they haven't been properly trained. "
But Professor Cavalli's research suggests that three out of 10 teachers are "near heroes"; they are "dedicated to the job, they are competent, they keep themselves informed, and they are excellent communicators". Of the remaining 70 per cent the picture is bleak. "Half of them are inadequate" is Professor Cavalli's conclusion. "The other half just survive."
The mystery, perhaps, is why there should be so many good teachers. With no initial training, no real career structure, and a salary which, according to a recent survey by the main independent teachers' union SNALS, is the lowest in Europe, the odds seem to be stacked against them. Lack of motivation combined with an absence of assessment (the inspectorate is more involved with organising courses and conventions than observing classroom practice) and near total job security (as civil servants, teachers have tenure) seem to be a sure antidote to excellence.
Up till now, the "super teachers" have worked with little recognition and no reward. Previous attempts to introduce incentive payments for special responsibilities have failed; in many cases funds allocated to schools were divided up equally between all staff.
But things may be about to change. The long overdue new contract has done away with the two-yearly increments based on length of service, and replaced them with a seven-tier career structure.
These tiers (known as gradoni, or "big steps") can last from three to seven years, and be related to ongoing training as well as length of service: teachers must clock up a minimum 100 hours of in-service training during each gradone to avoid falling behind. But a fast lane is also envisaged, which would allow better teachers quicker access to a higher salary.
Therein lies the rub, of course: what makes a "super teacher"? The criteria for assessing teacher performance have been left to a later addendum to the contract, and are currently the subject of debate. But the most likely criteria to be acceptable to the unions will be based on "objective" quantifiable data which may have little to do with classroom performance, such as attendance of INSET courses (the more the better) and publications - a particularly unrealistic requirement for shedding light on what happens in the classroom.
At times like this the need for a national evaluation service, which could provide information about the performance of teachers and schools, becomes painfully obvious. The National Centre for Social Investment Studies has been calling for one for years; in a recent survey it carried out among school heads only 0.4 per cent of respondents thought there was no need to develop such a service, although opinions differed about the form it could take. The majority (52 per cent) favoured an independent body, while others thought it could be incorporated into the existing administration (29 per cent).