Help for the poor with a heavy load

1st January 1999 at 00:00
ITALY. Free textbooks will be given to pupils in poor families, thanks to a government reform.

Currently, primary-school texts are distributed to all pupils, with the cost being met by the local comune (borough council). But there is no help with secondary-school texts, and families have to fork out an average of 550, 000 lire (Pounds 200) a year on books.

The budget allocates 200 billion lire (Pounds 70m) for buying middle-school and high-school texts. In middle schools, books will be given to pupils after their families have been means-tested. Long-term loans will be available for high-school pupils.

The criteria for the means test have yet to be decided. But it is unlikely that tax returns will be used, as in the past they have proved notoriously unreliable.

School textbooks and education publishers have had a bad press in recent years.

Most Italians believe the books are overpriced, and Luigi Berlinguer, the education minister, has frequently said that he doubts they are properly updated.

But the main complaint concerns their weight; massive tomes of more than a thousand pages are common in secondary schools, since publishers typically sell three-year courses between one set of covers. This means bigger profits, but for schoolchildren it is a dead weight to be lugged to and from school every day.

The mayors of some communities have tried to combat the problem by issuing bans on satchels weighing more than 10 per cent of body weight, with municipal police making spot checks at school gates.

A girl who was recently run over by a school bus was said to have slipped under the weight of the books she was carrying, and questions have been raised in parliament about possible long-term damage caused to young spines by overloaded schoolbags.

Someone, however, must like the books. In August masked bandits raided a warehouse in Turin and made off with 100,000 of them.

One of the gang, calling himself "a Robin Hood of culture" told bemused warehouse staff that he was "going to give the books to the poor". With the minister now about to do the same thing, he needn't have bothered.

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