Ministry split in jobs carve-up;Briefing;International

6th November 1998 at 00:00

David Newbold reports on the brief rise and sudden embarrassment of a cigar-smoking friend of the Pope

In the birth pangs accompanying the formation of the new government, the education ministry has been split into two. The outgoing minister, Luigi Berlinguer, has been re-appointed as minister for schools, while newcomer Ortensio Zecchino takes charge of universities.

Political in-fighting over the distribution of ministries is a regular feature of the Italian political scene, with numerous minor parties jostling for representation, but the fight for the education hot seat was more spectacular than most.

When the centrist Prodi government fell by just one vote in October, it was refloated more or less intact by the wiles of former president Francesco Cossiga, a veteran Christian Democrat.

Mr Cossiga brought his handful of centre-right deputies to replace the breakaway far left which had brought down the government, but there was a price to pay. The former president wanted three ministries, including education, which had always been the preserve of the now dissolved Christian Democrat party.

The schools minister-designate, Rocco Buttiglione, a cigar-smoking Catholic philosopher, said to be a personal friend of the Pope, was soon giving interviews as if he had already taken up office.

In a message presumably intended to show he was the right man for the job, he told reporters that his bedtime reading was The Oxford Book of Children's Verse. But by announcing that his main priority was parity between Catholic and state schools, Mr Buttiglione shot himself in the foot.

The reason for this lay in the Prodi government's announcement two years ago of the first overall reform of the state education sector in 60 years. The new-look school would start at age five, instead of six and continue to 15 instead of 14, with the scuola media (11-14) to be replaced by a more vocationally-orientated scuola di orientamento for 12 to 15-year-olds. Since then slow, but steady, steps have been taken towards implementing the reform.

Mr Buttiglione's announcement that he intended to champion private-ie Catholic-education was seen by the leftish government as a threat to the reform as it would drain resources from the state sector.

The Italian constitution itself seemed under threat, since it allows private schools to operate only if they are not a financial burden to the state.

In a hurried compromise Mr Berlinguer, the prime mover of the reform, was brought back with responsibility for schools, another centrist candidate, Mr Zecchino, was put in charge of universities with Mr Buttiglione left out in the cold.

So the first overall reform of the education system looks safe at the moment. But the Pope has stepped into the fray by making an impassioned plea for new legislation which would save cash-strapped Catholic schools from closing down. Mr Berlinguer, after his initial comment on re-taking office that "parity is not on the government's agenda", later announced that the government will "examine the question" of the status of private schools.

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