ITALY'S schools system is to undergo its first fundamental overhaul since the early days of the fascist regime in the 1920s.
Its system of primary and middle schools is to be abolished in favour of elementary education for six to 13-year-olds and two levels of secondary education.
The changes, approved by the camera dei deputati (Italy's parliament), will raise the leaving age from 1415 to 18.
Behind the reforms lies the need to prepare pupils for the jobs market and the challenges of higher education. Italy has one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union Businesses have criticised schools for being out of touch with reality. Universities have a 70 per cent drop-out rate.
After the first two years at secondary school, 15-year-old, pupils will have to choose whether they go on to academic or technical and vocationally-orientated schools.
Closer links with industry will be a feature of technical and vocationally-orientated schools, including the possiblity of work experience which will earn them credits for the school-leaving exam. In an attempt to give them a veneer of prestige, they will be known as licei, along with the more academic high schools which have enjoyed this name since Napoleonic times.
The replacement of primaries (scuola elementare) and middle schools (scuola media) with a single scuola di base follows the introduction last year of operational autonomy for schools and the establishment this year, of a system of initial teacher training.
The current system took its shape under Giovanni Gentile, education minister in Mussolini's fascist government of the 1920s. Since then only minor structural changes have been made, such as the separation of the scuola media from upper secondary schools in the 1970s. Chalk and talk has remained the standard teaching mode.
The original document for reform was drawn up more than two years ago by a panel of luminaries but, significantly, no teachers. It includes novelist Umberto Eco and Riccardo Muti, conductor-in-chief of La Scala opera house in Milan.
Some of the proposals, such as a plan to make the final year of nursery school compulsory, have fallen by the wayside. But other novelties have crept in, includingthe possibility of retraining sabbaticals for teachers - a point criticised by the opposition for its excessive cost.
According to one teacher union, 84 per cent of teachers support the reforms, which will be introduced gradually beginning the year after next.
After 10 years of falling rolls, the school population is on the increase, posing a mild threat to Italy's enviable one-to-nineteacher:pupil ratio. The rise of 50,000 is largely due to the growing number of pupils from developing countries, which has risen from 20,000 pupils in 1990-91 to an estimated 83,000.