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Pope strikes Catholic gold

ITALY. His voice may quaver and his hands tremble, but Pope John Paul is as coherent and determined as ever. Three times this year he has called for parity between state and private schools, and with his most recent appeal for government intervention, addressing 20,000 pupils from Catholic schools in St Peter's Square, he seems to have struck gold.

For the first time in the history of the Republic, state financing of the private sector looks likely.

For private, read Catholic. About 7 per cent of schools in Italy are private and most of these are Catholic.

Fees are usually modest, and parents often choose the schools because they offer a full-day timetable, or because they think the discipline is better. But with the population declining, many are struggling to survive. Last year 75 out of a total of 2,745 had to close.

Private schools are tolerated in the 1948 constitution, so long as they are "not a financial burden to the state". In reality, being funded by the Church, they reduce the bill for state education. But previous attempts to recognise this - by, for example, offering tax incentives to parents who choose private schools - have come to nothing.

This year a law giving individual schools more autonomy and a planned reform of the whole education system has forced the government to reconsider the position of the private sector.

A Bill prepared by education minister Luigi Berlinguer provides for private schools to be recognised by the state if they can demonstrate they meet certain standards in terms of teacher qualifications, school equipment, and facilities for disabled pupils. However, it reiterated the no-funding clause from the constitution.

Now, the Pope's plea has won over some Catholic members of Romano Prodi's centre-left government.

After a hasty round of bargaining, the government has agreed to give the private sector Pounds 40 million, though no one seems to know exactly how the money will be or where it is going to come from. The minister says not the state education budget and points to defence cuts as the most likely source.

The rush to subsidise Catholic schools has caused ominous grumbles from Rifondazione Comunista, the hard Left of Prodi's parliamentary majority, which brought the government to its knees last month over a planned reform of pensions.

Luigi Berlinguer, himself an ex-communist, has tried to play down the possibility of a new crisis, saying the last thing the country wants is a war of religion.

But the planned hand-out has not generated much enthusiasm among the advocates of equality either.

Dario Antseri, the dean of political science at the Catholic Luiss University in Rome, has described it as "an act of charity intended to prolong the poverty of the beggar who receives it".

David Newbold

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