Scramble for 'optimum-size' mergers;Briefing

19th March 1999 at 00:00

A presidential decree on the optimum size of schools has led to frantic bargaining at local level, as thousands of small schools seek mergers to comply.

From September, to obtain legal status as autonomous institutes, most schools will have to have at least 500 pupils. Only schools in outlying mountainous regions will be exempted.

Hardest hit are the scuole medie, which, as they cater for just three years (11 to 14-year-olds), tend to be smaller than scuole elementari (primaries) and scuole superiori (upper secondaries), covering five years.

The dilemma is whether to merge "horizontally" with another school of the same type in a neighbouring commune (borough) - leaving the two schools more or less intact on different sites, but under one head - or to seek vertical integration with the local primary school, which is likely to be just around the corner.

The novelty in the restructuring programme is that the decisions have been left to the local communities, and not, as in the past, the ministry. Inevitably, mergers will mean a lot of redundant headteachers. A complicated points system will decide which head of two merging schools takes control of the new autonomous institute, but a rush for early retirement suggests that many feel unhappy about the mergers.

Historically, scuole medie and scuole elementari are quite different institutions. Scuole medie teachers are graduates teaching a specialist subject; scuole elementari teachers are, for the most part, non-graduate class teachers. Teachers' strong sense of corporate identity, emphasised by a symbolic difference in pay, could lead to difficulties as the two groups find themselves colleagues within the same institute.

Another shake-up is coming for those scuole medie which escape the mergers. In a proposed overall reform, the middle school disappears, to be replaced by more vocationally-orientated scuole di orientamento for 12 to 15-year-olds, in line with the school-leaving age, which next year rises from 14 to 15.

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