Italian primary school reforms spark protests


ROME — In recent months, angry students, teachers and parents have flooded city avenues across Italy to protest the latest educational reform by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

In a scene that is hard to imagine that an education law could provoke in the United States, rows of police wearing riot gear protected the gates of the Ministry of Education and the Parliament Square during Rome’s largest rally, which drew an estimated 1 million marchers. 

Education Minister Mariaestella Gelmini touched a new nerve with an educational decree approved behind closed doors. In a fight to cut costs she made elementary schools the centerpiece of her new reform. For many public schools already adjusting to shrinking budgets, the reform could leave teachers with more work and the curriculum with fewer subjects. The move, experts say, would take Italian elementary schools back to where they were more than 40 years ago.

“Elementary schools did not need to be touched,” said Claudia Gabbianelli, director of Lambruschini Elementary School in northern Rome. Sitting in her office and tired after early morning meetings, Gabbianelli chained-smoked as she explained her discontent.

Gabbianelli’s school, like many throughout the country, meets national educational standards with just the bare necessities.  In the past four years her teacher count has dropped by 12, forcing her to cram groups of 40 students into a single classroom. 

“I didn’t expect this reform and I cannot imagine how they can implement it,” Gabbianelli said. “If I were the minister, I wouldn’t know how to do it.”   

With the upcoming reform, the Ministry of Education proposes a thorough renovation of public school buildings, without raising taxes. At the same time, Gelmini will require that teachers be qualified to teach all subjects in the core curriculum. Meeting this goal could come at the expense of thousands of specialists, a trend in teacher education pushed by a previous school reform 20 years ago. 

According to the 2008 Education budget, about 97 percent of the money available for public education goes to teacher salaries. Gelmini argues that this leaves only 3 percent of the total budget to cover school maintenance and technical innovation.

“That means that if we don’t intervene immediately, our school system won’t have the ability to renew itself and move serenely into the future,” Gelmini said in a recent press release. For the minister, improper allocation of the money available would harm schools more than budget cuts. 

But replacing an interdisciplinary group of teachers with a maestro unico — or single teacher — per classroom has unions in an uproar. Teachers with less seniority fear for their jobs. And many are worried simply because they do not know how and when the cuts will be implemented.

“We are forced to feel our way through the dark,” said Mariella Beconcini, a fourth-grade teacher at Gabbianelli’s school. 

“We keep wondering what to expect, but everything is up in the air,” she said.

Beconcini has been teaching at the school for 18 years. At the beginning of her career, the government recommended that teachers take state-funded courses to improve their skills in one specific area. Beconcini chose the sciences.    

“Information technology, didactic games and multimedia content helps us catch the students’ interest,” said Beconcini. “This way, we help them discover connections among different subjects.”    

Right now, Beconcini prepares her lessons around two or three subjects to provide context, consulting regularly with teachers who have other specialties.

“Today learning is a form of exploration for students,” Beconcini said.  “We won’t be able to teach that way anymore.” 

Next year, the Gelmini reform also will require that schools teach a new subject called “constitution and citizenship,” adding a ninth course to the list of requirements.

To respond to the protests, the Ministry of Education published a series of statements on its website. It urged schools to adopt the changes no later than September 2009.