State alms for Catholic schools

11th December 1998 at 00:00
ITALY. David Newbold reports on a government policy to bring private sector standards into line with the public sector

The first steps towards guaranteeing standards in private schools have been taken with the addition of 347 billion lire (pound;125m) to the budget for legislation on "parity" between state and private education.

It may not seem like a lot of money, but in a country where the constitution categorically states that private schools can exist only if they are "not a financial burden to the state" and where reform is notoriously slow, it is a groundbreaking amendment.

It has also come close to splitting the new centre-left coalition government, as some of its socialist, green and hardline communist members believe the notion of "freedom of teaching" (also enshrined in the constitution) is under threat in a private sector dominated by Catholic schools.

The parity debate began more than a year ago with a Bill drawn up by education minister Luigi Berlinguer to pull state and private systems together in an "integrated public system".

Until now, the private system, which caters for less than one in ten pupils, has survived isolated from mainstream education. It is not subject to government inspection, teachers do not usually have state teaching qualifications, and academic standards are not high.

Parents often choose to send children to private schools because they believe discipline is better, or because they offer a whole-day timetable.

Under the new Bill, private schools would have to guarantee standards, for example in class sizes and teacher qualifications, and become subject to a proposed national evaluation service.

In return, the state would recognise the "public utility" of the private sector through financial help. The form this aid might take - subsidies, tax relief or a voucher system - is still under debate, but the most likely solution seems to be tax incentives for parents who opt for private schools.

It is a curious paradox that, after years of Catholic pleas for state help being ignored by successive Christian Democrat governments - with the Pope frequently joining in the fray - help should now be imminent from a government led by an ex-communist, in a Bill drawn up by an ex-communist education minister.

But the ex-communists, now calling themselves Partito Democratico della Sinistra, do not see it like that. For them, the Bill guarantees educational and cultural pluralism, and could lead to the opening of the first Muslim school, as well as helping Catholic and non-denominational schools to survive.

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