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Pope hopes for left-wing rescue


The Pope wants the first left-wing government in the history of the Italian republic to reform the funding of Catholic schools, neglected for years by the Christian Democrats.

Speaking at a spring fun run organised in Rome for Catholic pupils a week after the victory of the Olive Tree left-of-centre alliance in the general election, the Pope said: "In many cases, Catholic schools which have provided a valuable service for decades, if not centuries, are having to close. I appeal to the public authorities to create the basis for a fair and valid integrated system which would include both state and independent schools."

There are 12,000 Catholic schools whose one million pupils comprise the bulk of the independent sector.

Parents often choose them because the hours are longer and the discipline is believed to be greater. But, apart from a few licei, the schools do not enjoy greater prestige than their state counterparts.

Most charge comparatively low fees and operate on shoestring budgets. The Pope's plea is a copy of an appeal he made two years ago when TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi came into power. Berlusconi, committed to parental freedom of choice, had the idea of a voucher system to revitalise the independent sector but nothing came of it during his short term in office.

If the government can survive the five-year mandate, the system, which would encompass state and private sectors, stands a good chance of being reformed.

After 50 years of Christian Democrat inertia, the survival of Catholic schools may depend on a "lay" left-wing government - although prime minister Romano Prodi and education minister Giancarlo Lombardi are staunch Catholics.

Seeking to reassure the Vatican, Gerardo Bianco, the secretary of Prodi's centre-left Popular Party, said: "The Pope is right. The PDS [the former communist party, the Popular Party's main ally] has shown itself to be sensitive and open on this issue. We think a Bill on the private sector can be proposed jointly by all parties in the Olive Tree. If D'Onofrio [education minister in the Berlusconi government] had devoted his energies to decentralising the system, instead of his stupid idea of abolishing September re-sits, we would already have a basis for tackling the problem of Catholic schools."

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