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Parties full of good intentions

The two main political groupings grappling for votes in the election on April 21 have not been sparing in insults, but they are finding it difficult to disagree on education.

The call for the centre-right Polo della Liberta (whose points of reference are TV magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini, the 43-year-old darling of the ex-fascists) is parity between state and private sectors, with the same minimum standards of quality. Private schools that meet the standards would be gradually brought under state financing.

All schools would have considerable decision-making autonomy and control of their budgets.

Other key points include an overhaul for outdated curricula in the scuola superiore (post-14 secondary) to bring them more into line with the world of work, and more co-ordination between primary, lower secondary (scuola media) and scuola superiore.

Valentina Aprea, the education spokesperson for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, claims the system is old, rigid, and bureaucratic. However, the system does not need an injection of cash but better use of existing funds: 98 per cent of the education budget goes on salaries.

Ms Aprea can hardly be calling for a cut in teacher's pay - the lowest in Europe. But she will have lost some teachers' votes for her remarks to the opposing Ulivo ("Olive tree") alliance, which seems to think a centre-left government will rake in funds for education.

Over the last six years the education budget has fallen from 7.7 per cent of the gross domestic product to 6.4 per cent. Giancarlo Lombardi, minister in the interim government of technocrats, has thrown in his lot with Prime Minister Dini in a centrish formation at the edge of the Ulivo constellation.

"If we win the elections," Mr Lombardi declared, "we intend to increase teachers' salaries." But, like the centre-right coalition, the main item on the Ulivo's agenda is local level autonomy to end an inefficient over-centralised system.

Other priorities include investing in teacher development, and a school building programme to improve conditions in the south, where some schools are so overcrowded they have to operate in shifts. Since the Polo and the Ulivo include a disparate range of parties and former parties, their education platforms are limited to generic good intentions, acceptable to everyone within the grouping.

But, as happened two years ago, the balance of power may end up in the hands of the maverick Lega Nord, the pro-north federalist party. In 1994 the Lega fought the campaign with Berlusconi. Now, after bringing the Berlusconi government to an end, the Lega is going it alone. Its leader Umberto Bossi has been finding inspiration in Mel Gibson's award-winning film Braveheart. "I am Braveheart, but I won't come to the same end. The people of the north will prevail," he said.

The cornerstone of the Lega's education programme is regionalisation, which means local recruitment of headteachers and staff. Fuelled by the belief that too many non-northerners work in northern schools, the Lega proposes a separatist model for education which has a lot in common with the de-centralised systems envisaged by its adversaries.

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