Trade unions organise strike against government school reforms

In October 2008, the Italian parliament approved a bill reforming Italy’s national school system. The bill envisages significant changes to the country’s public schools, especially those at primary school level. Trade unions, teaching staff, students and some members of the public rejected the government’s reforms, insisting that they will interfere with the quality and funding of the educational system. The unions organised a one-day general strike as a mark of protest.

In October 2008, the Italian parliament approved Decree Law No. 137/2008 entitled ‘Urgent measures with regard to education and the universities’. The bill had initially been approved by the Council of Ministers on 28 August 2008 and was subsequently passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 7 October followed by the Senate on 29 October. The decree was presented by the Minister of Education, Mariastella Gelmini.

Main education reforms

The main points of the government’s education reforms are as follows.

  • In primary schools, a single class teacher with a weekly schedule of 24 hours is to be introduced to replace the current system of three teachers rotating between two classes.
  • In lower and upper-secondary schools, the ‘good conduct grade’ is to be reintroduced – a low mark in this grade will mean that students have failed their end-of-year examinations.
  • A grading system is to be adopted in primary and secondary schools. If a student does not achieve a pass grade in any subject, they will not be able to advance to the next class year.
  • In primary and lower-secondary schools, ‘inclusion classes’ are to be established for foreign students with poor or non-existent Italian language skills. These classes will foster the learning of Italian and will prepare the students for entry into mainstream classes.

Supporting these provisions is Law No. 133/2008, approved in August 2008, which rationalises public spending – including expenditure on universities. As a result, the funding for universities will be reduced by more than €1.4 billion over the next five years (2009–2013). The provisions also stipulate a reduction in the recruitment rate of university teaching staff: for the next three years, universities will be allowed to hire one new lecturer for every five retirees. Furthermore, the law envisages the possibility that universities may convert themselves into private foundations.

In addition, Decree Law No. 154 of 7 October 2008, not yet approved by the parliament and transposed into law, provides for the closure of schools with fewer than 50 students by the regional administration institutions.

Government justifies reform measures

Minister Gelmini defended the reform measures on the grounds that ‘the school system cannot keep on being used as a social shock absorber’. She anticipated that the reforms will come into effect by the beginning of the next school year.

The government has also justified the introduction of ‘inclusion classes’, arguing that they will ‘encourage’ rather than ‘authorise’ the entry of foreign pupils into the national school system.

Reactions to reforms

The government’s proposed reforms have generated strong reactions not only from the trade unions, but also from teaching staff, students and members of the public.

According to the General Secretary of the Federation of Knowledge Workers of the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Federazione lavoratori della conoscenzaConfederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Flc-Cgil), Domenico Pantaleo, if the spending cutbacks envisaged by the government are actually implemented, the loss of jobs will affect ‘130,000 people in the next three years’. Mr Pantaleo added: ‘This reform is based solely on an economicist logic. It is only concerned with cutting funds and jobs. There is no other ideological basis or reformist purpose, but only a frontal assault on the public school system, and this in a country like Italy, which spends less on education than the average of the other European countries, as the most recent OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] report has shown [Education at a glance 2008: OECD indicators]’.

The General Secretary of the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl), Raffaele Bonanni, complained about the authoritarian method used by the government, which did not discuss the reforms with the trade unions nor hold any debate on them in parliament. As Mr Bonanni stated: ‘To subject the decree to a vote of confidence, when it concerns a crucial issue like the school system, is a seriously wrong decision.’

Moreover, the majority of the regional administration institutions expressed their opposition to the closure of schools with fewer than 50 pupils, claiming that by law the organisation of the school system is within the remit of the local authorities, not of the central government.

General strike goes ahead

As a mark of their strong opposition to the proposed reforms, the five most representative trade unions in Italy’s public school system staged a general strike on 30 October, covering the entire education sector. The trade unions involved were: Flc-Cgil; the Federation of Education Workers, Cisl-Scuola; the education union, Uil-Scuola, of the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil); the Autonomous National Union of School Workers (Sindacato Nazionale Autonomo Lavoratori Scuola, Snals); and the Teachers’ Guild (Gilda degli Insegnanti, Gilda). According to the strike’s organisers, some 80% of employees and 90% of schools joined the strike; a million people reportedly took part in the demonstration held in Rome.

As regards the cuts in spending on the universities, Cgil, Cisl and Uil announced that they would be holding a general strike on 14 November.

Commentary

The legislative measures envisaged for Italy’s public education system and universities is set to reduce the services and infrastructure available to students, in turn lowering the quality of educational delivery.

In terms of the universities, a particularly serious concern is the proposal to enable public universities to convert themselves into private foundations. This measure is likely to result in an increase in enrolment fees, at the same time restricting the further education opportunities of deserving students with limited economic means.

Livio Muratore, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso

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