Italy's pupils enjoy thrill of class war

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The Independent Online
Two weeks ago a hundred pupils barricaded themselves into a high school in Rome to protest against education reforms. A few days later police stormed the building. With angry pupils still plotting their next move it sounds like the beginning of a revolution, but, says in Italy's state school system it is simply par for the course.

The children who gathered outside the battered facade of the Liceo Mamiani yesterday were not in a mood to mess about. Still seething about the brutal end to their little experiment in educational self-rule, they were discussing their next move. Should they continue to boycott television chat shows? Should they keep trying to break back into the school, or push for a withdrawal of the large police van standing guard outside the main gate?

"We have the right to express ourselves and discover the individual within us. They can't stop us just because we are behaving out of the norms of ordinary behaviour," began one 16-year-old boy, before his comrades reminded him of their media blackout.

The youngsters were dressed mainly in black, grunge-style, with a definite preference for pierced noses and Palestinian keffiyehs. On one of the school's outer walls, someone had spray-painted: "Leave no room for the Fascists!"

It looked like 1968 all over again, and in a sense it was. The last time the police came to clear the anarchists out of the Liceo Mamiani was in that fateful year. But appearances can be deceptive: what looked like a full-scale youth rebellion was, in fact, little more than a well-worn ritual among Italy's disaffected teenagers.

The Mamiani has been occupied by its pupils at regular intervals for as long as anyone can remember. So, too, have a slew of other schools in the larger Italian cities. It is not the problem schools that are hit, but those used by the offspring of rich families who fancy themselves as left-wing.

The object of the exercise is not to rebel against the authority of the teachers. The point is to rebel for the sake of rebelling. What greater fun can there be than to tell your elders to get lost, hold dope-befuddled parties that last for days, organise student-run classes on such illuminating topics as Red Brigades terrorism and the redundancy of parents, and watch videos of 2001: A Space Odyssey into the early hours?

To be fair, the most recent occupation of the Mamiani and 60 other schools was rooted in a genuine grievance: a government proposal to take some pounds 60m in funding from the severely under-resourced state school system and give it to private schools, especially religious ones.

But this noble cause was soon overtaken by the sheer thrill of disobedience. The Mamiani's headmaster, Giuliano Ligabue, newly arrived from a sleepy school in Sardinia, evidently had trouble believing his eyes and was soon circulating stories to his superiors about rampant drug use, outbreaks of violence and even the reported sighting of a revolver.

Mr Ligabue's alarm prompted the police raid. On Monday, the headmaster went to the Education Ministry to resign, leaving the coast clear for the police to drag the 100 or so protesters off into custody for identity checks (there were no arrests).

There were reports of broken windows and lavatories in sad disrepair, but such was ever the state of the Mamiani. There were reports that a criminal gang called Flaminio Mafia had taken over the school and was peddling drugs and even arms. But only a few grams of marijuana were found, some wooden sticks and lavatory chains. It is still not clear if Flaminio Mafia exists as anything more than the name of a teenage rap band.

The whole farcical spectacle is a symptom of the fact that the Italian school system has neither the means nor the political will to work. English teachers can barely speak English and science labs have next to no equipment. There are rarely any sporting, or any other, extra-curricular activities. Latin, on the other hand, is compulsory in nearly all high schools - an anachronism that dates back to the time when education was the preserve of the Church.

"The school system is no more than an elegant con-trick, using fantasy politics as a substitute for education," commented one disillusioned former academic.

The students of the Mamiani may be having the time of their lives, but if they are the future of Italy it doesn't look too promising.