Greater autonomy looms for schools;Briefing;International

12th March 1999 at 00:00

After decades of acting as the education ministry's agents heads are to be granted undreamt of freedoms, reports David Newbold

Sweeping decentralisation of powers from the education ministry to schools will become a reality from September, following approval by the council of ministers of a law passed in 1997.

For a public sector often stifled by bureaucracy, and an education system that has changed little since the 1920s, last week's decision heralds a sea change: from being little more than outposts of the ministry, schools will over night find themselves with a large slice of organisational and educational autonomy.

An immediate result is likely to be more flexible timetables. At present, the school timetable is based on a six-day week, from 8am to 1pm. Schools will be free to opt for a shorter week (Mondays to Fridays) with afternoon classes.

They will be able to introduce half-term holidays, allowing pupils to join French and German schoolchildren on the ski-slopes for an invigorating settimana bianca (winter holiday week) in February; or redistribute the hours of curricular subjects, for example by organising "full immersion" courses in a foreign language.

They will also be able to decide on the contents of 20 per cent of the curriculum, which education minister Luigi Berlinguer said will mean "greater accountability to local communities".

But, he was quick to add, in a clear allusion to the separatist Lega Nord movement which is still strong in the north of Italy, that it won't mean fostering secessionist ideals in state schools - the 20 per cent curriculum slice tailored by schools would have to meet as yet unspecified "national objectives".

To help prospective parents decide which school is right for their children, schools will be required to produce an informative brochure (the piano dell'offerta formativa, or POF) listing the compulsory, optional and extra-curricular courses on offer.

What will not change with decentralisation is teacher recruitment. Teachers will continue to be posted to schools by the education ministry (rather than apply directly to those they would like to teach in), although local level teacher "exchanges" between schools will be possible.

And since they will continue to be paid from central funds, this means that headteachers will be handling smaller budgets than their British counterparts.

None the less, many heads are worried about their new role as presidi managers ("manager heads"). After a lifetime spent at the receiving end of instructions (each school gets on average three circulars a day from the ministry) they now find themselves the prime movers in the decentralisation process. Will they have the power - and the willpower - to cope with the challenges?

As one middle-school headteacher pointed out, it isn't at all clear where responsibilities lie.

"If I want to introduce a short week - because that's what parents want - but teachers are against the idea - what happens then?"

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