Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government is introducing a dual-track secondary system separating academic education from vocational training.
From September 2006, 14-year-olds will have to choose between five years in an academic environment, leading to the university entrance exam, or four years preparing for a vocational or professional qualification, interspersed with work placements.
The vocational sector will be controlled by regional government, while the academic sector will stay with central government.
One consequence of the reform will be to raise the number of years spent in compulsory education or training. Previously, pupils could leave the system after scuola media at age 14 or 15, although most stayed on.
Those who now opt for vocational training will have to spend 990 hours a year in the classroom until the age of 18, as well as doing work placements in local industry from 15.
Presenting the reform, Letizia Moratti, the education minister, underlined the principle of "non irreversibility", by which any pupil wishing to go into higher education after four years of vocational training can stay on for a final year to prepare for the university entrance exam.
She claimed that success for all pupils was guaranteed, since everyone would come out of the system "either with a diploma or a professional qualification".
The main teaching unions disagree. The secretary of the largest union, CGIL, said it would create a social divide between young people, while a spokesperson for COBAS (a high-profile union which represents more radical teachers) dismissed the reform as "a way of providing private industry with a free workforce".
Most 14-year-olds are expected to choose the academic track. All schools will take the prestigious title of liceo, which up till now has been reserved for a traditional type of secondary school specialising in science (liceo scientifico) or the humanities (liceo classico).
The istituti tecnici (technical institutes), which at present comprise the majority of secondary schools, will become either a liceo economico or a liceo tecnologico.
All liceo pupils will take the European Computer Driving Licence after two years, and study two foreign languages, one of which must be English.
In the final year, one curricular subject should be taught through the medium of English, although it is not yet clear how many teachers would be able to teach their subject in English.
Pupils will be assigned a tutor, a teacher with a pastoral role, following a model being experimented in primary schools.
The reform will be implemented over a five-year period starting in 2006, prompting the comment by Chiara Acceroni, of the main opposition party Democratici di Sinistra, that the minister is "a general without an army who persists in making five-year plans to be introduced when she is no longer minister".