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Will Rome fall to teachers' angry protests?

Italy Schools face heavy cuts as an indebted government plans to save billions. But they are not taking them without a fight

Italy Schools face heavy cuts as an indebted government plans to save billions. But they are not taking them without a fight

Looking at the escapades of their prime minister, it's easy to understand why Italians have a reputation for passion. After his most recent alleged involvement with a 17-year-old, Silvio Berlusconi said: "No one can make me change my lifestyle. I am a playful person. I love life and I love women." Well, quite.

But that legendary Italian passion is now finding other outlets, with its people taking to the streets to protest. There is anger against Mr Berlusconi - not for his night-time indiscretions, but for his government's attacks on the education system.

Recently fire bombs were thrown in Turin by young protesters including rioters of allegedly high-school age. There have been clashes with police in Florence.

In Rome, it was banners flung across the education ministry declaring "You Are The Nightmare, We Are The Wake-up Call" that caught the eye, while schoolchildren chained themselves together as a symbol of the shackles they say reforms and cuts will place around them and their futures.

Along with marches in about 50 cities across Italy, teachers and lecturers also plan to hold regular strikes all this year protesting budget cuts and reforms.

The fight, they say, is also against privatisation of schools, linking them with businesses, as their debt-laden government looks to make massive budget savings.

Education has been targeted because of its notorious overstaffing, inefficiency and cosy jobs for life that a public service contract in Italy used to mean. Now teachers and legions of "teacher helpers" are being fired or retired only to be replaced by poorly paid part-timers.

The government also wants to change the system in primary schools so that the same teacher takes all classes, rather than having subject specialists.

Education minister Mariastella Gelmini, very much at the heart of Berlusconi's right-leaning People of Freedom Party, defends her reforms.

"It's indispensable to continue on the road of reforms, we have to aim for quality schools," she said in a speech. "To meet these objectives we are reviewing the inefficient mechanisms that have weakened Italian schools in the past."

She may have a point. Italian schools perform poorly in international comparisons, with below-average rankings for teacher quality and student knowledge.

But these shortcomings reflect the fact that Italy spends less on education than its European partners, with only 4.5 per cent of its GDP going into education, making Italy second from the bottom among industrialised countries, according to the OECD.

But with debts mounting to the point where they are nearly as bad as those run up by the Greeks, the axe has already fallen on 70,000 school jobs. Rome is now looking for at least 41,000 more from the nation's 678,000 teachers. The reforms to education are expected to save several billion euros over the next two years.

Already suffering from years of neglect and mismanagement, Italy's schools are going to take a hard hit. The country's teachers and students are not going to take the changes without a fight - the question is whether, this time, passion will be enough.

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