Reform puts heads in a spin

ITALY. Autonomy is in fashion, but are schools ready for it? David Newbold.

If it's not expressly forbidden, then it's probably allowed - so runs the new maxim Italian headteachers have been given to start the new school year.

In March a law (immediately dubbed the "mother of all reforms") was passed, giving schools more autonomy. Teachers are also expecting Romano Prodi's centre-left government to release a large sum - perhaps as much as 15,000 billion lire (Pounds 14 bn) - to go towards teacher retraining and to implement La Grande Riforma.

For now though, heads find themselves with powers which previously belonged to the ministry - and they are apprehensive.

Critics fear it will be too hard for some heads to overcome the accumulated inertia of years waiting to be told what to do in circulars, on the grounds that anything not expressly authorised by the ministry was probably forbidden.

Take the five-day week. Until now schools, which close at lunchtime, have been obliged to open on Saturdays. But the law on autonomy means that they will be able to reorganise the timetable around a five-day week, making more use of afternoons. It is up to headteachers to find out whether a short week would better suit them, and the community they serve. For some the trouble may not seem worth taking.

Education minister Luigi Berlinguer has recognised that the conversion to headteachermanager may not be easy, and has dared the faint-hearted to use their initiative.

The law on autonomy is intended to pave the way for the first overall reform of education since the fascist period. However, after the announcement in February of the proposed new structure (with the starting age brought forward to five and the leaving age pushed back to 15) schools are still waiting to discover what the contents of their new curriculum will be.

And plans to bring in a new school-leaving exam (maturita) from 1998 were held up when scuffles broke out in parliament in July after opposition parties presented a series of amendments to the Bill.

Other, less controversial, changes manage to slip in almost unnoticed. This year pupils in the penultimate year of scuola superiore will be able to pre-enrol at university. This reflects an increasing awareness of the responsibilities schools should have in academic and vocational guidance and is also likely help universities to plan their intakes better.

Traditionally the start of the university year is chaotic as students enrol at the last minute. On the schools front, the minister has promised that the return to classes this year (staggered over a two-week period, with Sardinia first back and Sicily last) will be smoother than usual, with no teaching posts left unfilled. In the light of previous years' experience, many find this hard to believe, but it is not the only promise the minister has made.

The government, he says, is studying ways in which teachers will be able to deduct professional expenses (such as books and courses) from income tax. In a country where underpaid teachers are among the few professionals unable to deduct expenses - because they are civil servants - this is welcome news, but it remains for the moment just a feasibility study.

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