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PM decrees last days for old system

ITALY. "No country can afford to be rich and ignorant for more than one generation," the Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, said last month in his first address to parliament, which placed educational reform at the centre of his government's programme.

The man chosen to decentralise the system is an ex-communist from Sardinia, 63-year-old Luigi Berlinguer. When the Italian Communist party broke up in 1991, he, like most of his companions, joined the newly formed PDS (Party of the Democratic Left). He can boast wide political connections: his cousin Enrico was the leader of the Communist party in the 1970s.

For almost 50 years, the duration of the so-called First Republic, two ministries were jealously guarded by Christian Democrats through a string of coalition governments: internal affairs and education. In the new Prodi government, both have gone to ex-communists.

When the short list of new ministers was drawn up, Luigi Berlinguer's credentials as a former chancellor of Sienna University, where he holds a chair in law, made him an obvious candidate to become the ministry of the universities.

But in a last-minute government slimming operation, it was decided to bring this ministry back under the education minister. In the inter-party horse-trading which followed, the man widely tipped for the job, outgoing education minister Giancarlo Lombardi, gave way to Berlinguer.

The new minister will have to steer through parliament the raising of the school-leaving age from 14 to 16, with the inevitable shake-up of the secondary system, which at present is divided into two rigidly separate units, scuola media (11 to 14-year-olds) and scuola superiore (15 to 19).

Numerous previous attempts to achieve this have failed. The novelty this time is that the new education minister has been given a deadline. "This is the last year of the old system," the prime minister has promised. "With the next school year will begin the process of decentralisation, autonomy and renewal."

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