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Reform inevitable, just say when

ITALY. Like San Francisco, Italy is waiting for the Big One. A series of earthquakes at the end of September made 50,000 people homeless in Umbria and reduced a sizeable quantity of the region's heritage to rubble.

Within days makeshift schools were functioning in tents, and schools in other parts of the country made sure their "What to do in case of an earthquake" posters were up. Most of Italy is at risk, and experts say that the Big One is overdue.

But schools are also waiting for a long-promised Big One: the Grande Riforma, the first reform of the education system since the 1920s.

Things got off a grand start in February, when the Luigi Ber-linguer, the education minister, engaged 38 luminaries to set up a think-tank for a new curriculum. Significantly, no teachers were consulted. For teachers - and anybody else - with comments to make the ministry set up a reform hot-line.

Meanwhile, plans were announced for a restructured system which would raise the school- leaving age from 14 to 15, and require children to start at five, making attendance in the final year of nursery education compulsory.

Since then, things have gone slowly. The think-tank came up with a largely predictable foundation document emphasising the importance of new technologies, while the minister got side-tracked by other things. These included whether the state should subsidise private education and the need to update the school-leaving exam, the maturita, taken at 19.

Both issues generated a lot of heat. In July MPs came to blows when opposition parties presented more that 1,000 amendments to the Bill for the new maturita, which proposed to test candidates in all subjects studied in the final year (instead of the current two). As a result, Mr Berlinguer missed the boat for 199798, and the new exam, with its multiple choice test, is now scheduled for summer 1999.

The question of parity between state and private schools came to a head in October after an impassioned plea by the Pope in favour of cash-strapped Catholic schools. This led to a government pledge of Pounds 40 million which seems to have pleased no one. The supporters of public funding of the private sector see the money as an insulting one-off handout; opponents believe that it is anti-constitutional.

So the Big Reform remains only a working hypothesis and the aim to have it in place by the millennium looks overly optimistic. But, even if it is not just around the corner, the Big One, like its seismological equivalent, is inevitable.

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