October 29, 2008

Think again, Mrs. Education Secretary


After the huge rally which was held Saturday in Rome—organised by the main opposition party, the Democratic Party—to protest against the government of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, it’s now up to students and teachers to stage mass demonstrations all over the country against the government.

Last Saturday the message was, in the words of PD leader Walter Veltroni, “Italy is much better than the right that is governing it now but another Italy is possible and we’ll do it together. Democracy, Mr prime minister, is not a company board.” Next Thursday, the day of the general strike of the school proclaimed by the unions, the slogan could sound “Italian teachers are much better than you, Mrs. education secretary. School is not dead wood to be axed.”

In fact, deep budget cuts (€7.8bn) over the next three years are exactly what the new young education secretary Mariastella Gelmini adopted in her recent decree. Yet, Gelmini’s education reforms are not just cutting expenses. There is the reintroduction of a system of “one class, one teacher” in elementary schools, namely each class would have one all-purpose instructor instead of three staff sharing teaching duties in different subjects for two classes. A questionable but “important” choice. There is the reintroduction of marks for conduct, which were abolished 10 years ago. A decision which was heartily welcome, as far as I know, by the vast majority of teachers in the face of an increasing number of hideous incidents of bullying. There are equally welcome measures aimed to let families save money on school books (see also Alex Roe’s Blog from Italy for more details on this and other aspects of Gelmini’s decree). Furthermore, Gelmini urged headmasters to promote the wearing of smocks. She is also considering the reintroduction of uniforms.

Yet, Famiglia Cristiana, a very popular Catholic weekly magazine, wrote in its latest issue, “We cannot define reform a simple cut of expenses.” Perhaps this sentence is too harsh, but the charge is not groundless. “In a country afflicted by the crisis,” wrote Famiglia Cristiana, “money is made available for Alitalia and banks: why not for schools?”

What the Catholic weekly magazine seems to forget is that, as the Guardian rightly notes in a very informative article,

The homeland of Maria Montessori spends more on its six- to 11-year-olds than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Cash gets a bit tighter in secondary education. But even there the average spending per student is £4,420, only fractionally below the OECD average.

And that the nub of the issue is instead that

the available resources are spent badly - or, rather, unproductively. About 97% of Italy's education budget is gobbled up by pay. Yet the teachers are not particularly well rewarded. In primary education, they get 78% of the OECD average (though they also work shorter hours: a basic 24 per week). The problem is that there are so many of them. Italy is a country of short teaching weeks, long school days and small classes, often in tiny schools.

But this, in turn, doesn’t mean that there will be people who will be thrown out of work. As a matter of fact the government stresses that the savings are to be made by not filling vacancies (which is not a good thing, however, for several thousands of young freelance teachers whose hopes of a career in education have been put off, at least, until 2012).

There is, however, a “sophisticated interpretation,” as the leftist Guardian maliciously puts it: “that Gelmini is building a bedrock of support from which she can demand greater resources for the more challenging task of reforming secondary education.” But the risk is that, continues the British daily newspaper, “with Italy once again heading back into a recession that will strain its public finances, the treasury will slam shut the coffers once the cuts have taken effect.” Unfortunately, this is not an unlikely scenario, in my opinion.

That’s also why even some right-wing supporters and allies of the ruling coalition led by Berlusconi—among whom the Northern League leader Umberto Bossi himself, with his superb political nose—balked at the decree when it was unveiled.

What is worst for Mrs. Gelmini and for the whole education system is that public opinion, rebus sic stantibus, could persuade itself to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” that is to say to get rid of the good of Gelmini’s “reform” along with the bad and/or highly questionable. That’s why the government would be doing a favor to both itself and the country by suspending or withdrawing the Gelmini decree. But I’m afraid it’s too late: it’s almost certain that the Senate will approve today the controversial decree.

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UPDATE MARCH 29, 2008 - 12:29 pm

As widely predicted, Italian government won a few minutes ago final parliamentary approval for Mariastella Gelmini's education reforms. The Senate, the upper house of parliament, approved the decree by 162 votes for to 134 against with three abstentions.

“From today on,” said Valentina Aprea, chair of the Senate’s Cultural Commission, “we shall be busy enacting this decree together with Piano Gelmini to completely re-organise the educational system, to conform to European standards and those of OECD countries, taking up the challenge of re-grading public expenditure on education according to criteria of quality, efficiency and effectiveness.”



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7 comments:

  1. .... "(it) is not a good thing, however, for several thousands of young freelance teachers whose hopes of a career in education have been put off, at least, until 2012"!

    Young???? Freelance?????

    The teachers who will lose their jobs are the so-called PRECARi. The schoolteachers called ‘PRECARI’ (literally “precarious” or “temporary” teachers on short term contracts) are teachers who have passed one or more State examinations and are placed in provincial lists waiting to become employed full-time. They are not simple supply teachers occupying the post of an absent colleague. The ‘precarious’ teacher does not replace anyone. He or she occupies an absolutely empty position that the following year comes back absolutely empty.

    The presence of the ‘PRECARI’ in the school, even if in empty posts, is useful for the finances of the State: they cost much less than a full-time teacher because they are nominated in September and employed only until June. Their salary always remains the same without increases and without seniority increases, their contract is renewed from year to year with part-time contracts that nobody is concerned to regularise in any way, i.e. they are left this way permanently!

    The ‘PRECARI’ are not even allowed social welfare treatment that at least helps when work is lost, guaranteeing a period of transition for finding another.” In the Italian school you can be ‘PRECARI’ until pensionable age or end up in the street without being able to claim any rights.

    I work with PRECARI who are over 50 and have been exploited this way for up to 23 years!

    This "reform" does not IMPROVE the Italian school system beacause it is ONLY based on cutting expenses without considering that many of the people who will suffer the consequences are those with better qualifications and experience.
    Best Regards,
    Prof.ssa Melanie Segal

    ReplyDelete
  2. "The homeland of Maria Montessori spends more on its six- to 11-year-olds than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Cash gets a bit tighter in secondary education. But even there the average spending per student is £4,420, only fractionally below the OECD average."

    In Italy there are 25.000 Catholic Religion teachers appointed by the Vatican and paid by the State .... this does not happen in any other country ... At Primary education level there are about 96.000 teachers for children with Special Needs which allows a good level of integration of these kids. In other countries Special Needs teachers are paid by other Ministries or by local agencies .... and the list could go on and on. I think it is unfair to compare different systems without considering what they entail.

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  3. Melanie, thanks for explaining in good English the concept of “precari,” I made use of the definition adopted by the Guardian, because otherwise it would have taken me years to find one of my own, since English is not my mother tongue. But you gave my Anglophone readers the opportunity to fill the gap.
    Yet, since I am a teacher, too, I am bound to say that I don’t know of any “precari” who are over 50, or, still better, some years ago I heard of some of them—very few, to tell the truth—but meanwhile they have been “sistemati” (engaged permanently). Nonetheless I agree that even if there were only one left behind, so to speak, it would be a scandal. Which doesn’t mean that I think there is any right to be engaged permanently. I just think that “the State” cannot make use of precari as a sort of permanent resource.

    I agree with you that, nevertheless, “the presence of the precari is useful for the finances of the State.” I don’t agree on your point that the “reform” (and I made/make use of the inverted commas) is “ONLY based on cutting expenses.” And this for self-evident reasons.

    As for the Catholic Religion teachers, appointed by the dioceses (not the Vatican) but paid by the State, I suppose that actually “this does not happen in any other country.”

    Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

    All the best
    Rob

    ReplyDelete
  4. " ... since I am a teacher, too, I am bound to say that I don’t know of any “precari” who are over 50, or, still better, some years ago I heard of some of them—very few, to tell the truth—but meanwhile they have been “sistemati” (engaged permanently)"

    I suppose you teach in one of those schools where teachers with a permanent job aspire to teach. My experience is quite different from yours. This year I have to travel 3h a day to get to my school and back ... the school has 50% of precari ... most of them are around forty and 5 are over 50 years old, including a colleague who will RETIRE next year!!!!! If you’re a teacher you must know that it depends on what the subject you teach (classe di concorso) ... so if you have a look at the “graduatorie” (provincial lists of qualified teachers) of certain subjects (for example languages, physical education, philosophy etc.) you will see that there are hundreds of “PRECARI” who are over-50 (birth dates are included in the lists!)
    Some of us (most of us?), thanks to this “reform”, might NOT work next year!
    I firmly believe that ONE of our problems is that our “colleghi di ruolo” have never shown any kind of solidarity with those who, for many reasons, have not been as lucky as them. This, of course doesn’t mean that the teachers with a permanent job are BETTER than the PRECARI. If you really believe that there is no right to be engaged permanently maybe all the incompetent and “fannulloni” teachers could be sacked to leave space to who has been desperately trying to get the job they LOVE doing and to acquire the dignity of a professional status for which they have qualified, specialized and worked for even in difficult and precarious situations !

    Being a “precarious” teacher means living an existential instability. After 20 years in the Italian school system I’m fed up and will probably go back to England next year but many of my colleagues will be left, after many years devoted to teaching, without the possibility to support their families.

    I firmly believe that this “reform” (which includes Tremonti’s L. 133 which takes away 8 billion euros from the Italian School System) “is ONLY based on cutting expenses” the rest is “gettare fumo negli occhi”

    Best regards,
    Prof.ssa Melanie Segal (docente precaria di lingua e civiltà inglese)

    ReplyDelete
  5. ”Being a “precarious” teacher means living an existential instability” ... etc. I know, Melanie, it’s terrible. I don’t know whether I would have been able to resist 10 or 20 years in such deplorable conditions, or not.

    ”If you really believe that there is no right to be engaged permanently maybe all the incompetent and “fannulloni” teachers could be sacked to leave space to who has been desperately trying to get the job they LOVE doing and to acquire the dignity of a professional status for which they have qualified, specialized and worked for even in difficult and precarious situations !”

    In my view you hit the center of the question. As for the “fannulloni” the task is quite simple, while there is a problem with incompetent people. The problem is how and on the basis of which criteria should teachers be evaluated? Do you remember the so-called “concorsaccio?”
    I don’t think it was a great idea … Nevertheless I don’t ever think it’s impossible to find an adequate national evaluation system.

    Ciao
    Rob

    ReplyDelete
  6. P,S. Sorry for the delay, I have been very busy today and away from my computer ...

    ReplyDelete
  7. No problem, I was busy too ... off to Rome and back ;-)
    Melanie

    ReplyDelete

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