The not so gentle man of Padania
It may have been just a coincidence that pupils in the north of Italy found themselves back at school on the day the fledgling secessionist "republic of Padania" was announced. However, for supporters of Umberto Bossi, the MP who wants the north of Italy to become an independent republic, the highly centralised education system is a prime example of everything that is wrong with the state.
As school gates opened earlier this month, the leghisti (militants from Bossi's Northern League) were out distributing a six-point manifesto calling for a new education system for Padania (the name comes from the River Po, revered by Bossi as a sort of fertility symbol of the North).
The priority is to get rid of all teachers from southern Italy. In some schools in the North - particularly secondary schools - up to 80 per cent of staff may be of southern origin. This is because the industrial boom of the 1960s and 1970s was largely a northern phenomenon; the south remained depressed.
With new schools opening in the North, southern teachers were attracted by the security of a permanent job. The trend continued through the Eighties and the beginnings of recession.
"No more southern teachers in our schools," reads the leaflet. The league has always thrived on provocative slogans, but this time Bossi's followers seem to be in earnest.
Roberto Calderoli, secretary of the Lombardy section of the league, and a member of parliament, has tried to obtain a list of southern-born teachers working in the province of Bergamo, a citadel of league hard-liners. His request was turned down by the local education authority, but it sent shock waves running through schools.
No jobs are really at risk. Even if the new republic became a reality, its constitution generously offers Padanian citizenship to residents of five years standing, which would cover most of the southern staff, but it is the growing sense of confrontation which is causing teachers anxiety.
Orazio Amboni, secretary of a local union branch, said: "We are increasingly having teachers tell us of older pupils coming to school wearing Northern League badges and scarves, and adopting threatening attitudes. Sooner or later, things could degenerate."
Other points on the league's manifesto include the editing of textbooks which are "an expression of a regime-based culture" and the introduction of local northern dialects as a subject of study, if not as the actual medium of instruction. In the North, particularly in parts of Lombardy and most of the Veneto, a large percentage of the population continues to use dialect in preference to the national language.
The "regime-based culture" has not been slow to reply. The president of the Lombardy region, ex-Christian Democrat Roberto Formigoni, has called on all teachers and civil servants of southern origin to go on a one-week protest strike, which, he believes, would bring Padania to its knees, while the education minister, ex-communist Luigi Berlinguer, in a significant change from the norm, chose to inaugurate the new academic year from a school in the North.
It has become something of a tradition for the education minister to make a symbolic start-of-year speech from a school in a depressed area of the South, preferably a suburb of Naples or Palermo.
This year the minister went to a school near Bologna, officially to commemorate 12 pupils who lost their lives six years ago when a plane crashed into the roof.
Berlinguer, in belligerent mood, did not miss the opportunity to attack Bossi, whom he described as vulgar, and to defend Italian culture, and the education system, as a "source of national unity".
"To carve up Italy," the educaiton minister went on, "would mean taking a back seat in Europe and being colonised by France or Germany."
The Italian republic may also have a secret weapon up its sleeve in the fight against the secessionists. Berlinguer is contemplating introducing a national flag day which would be a school holiday dedicated to the "problems of national unity".
Fortunately, a convenient date is just around the corner: the green, white and red tricolore was first adopted (for the Napoleonic Cisalpin Republic) on January 7, 1797.