Bribe for the teacher gets you good grades

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What started as an inquiry involving a few school principals and education officials with a penchant for pearls, gold bracelets and holidays is widening into a scandal that risks discrediting Italy's antiquated education system.

What started as an inquiry involving a few school principals and education officials with a penchant for pearls, gold bracelets and holidays is widening into a scandal that risks discrediting Italy's antiquated education system.

Last week nine people in the province of Latina near Rome were put under house arrest for allegedly demanding regalini, (little gifts) for a helping hand in professional qualifying exams or costly "preparation courses" ensuring almost certain success.

Now similar inquiries have opened into irregularities in Rome, Salerno, Cassino, Crotone, La Spezia and Cuneo, a domino effect of denunciations by candidates who were denied jobs or promotion because they failed exams.

The Education Minister Tullio De Mauro, a leading linguist, is trying to defend the integrity of the school system against what he calls a few rotten apples. He has vowed to overhaul teacher recruitment, which is usually done by concorsi, huge public exams.

The disgrace is a far cry from the scandal of the billions of lire that changed hands among businessmen, public officials and politicians in the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) of the early Eighties, but the press is already calling it " Esamopoli" (Examville).

What has struck many Italians is the pettiness, how officials can sell their professional and ethical values, for so little. Under investigation is Annamaria P, a well-groomed 65-year-old widow, and president of the examining structure. She oversaw 27 panels, some of which had members who could be relied on to "do the right thing".

Phone taps reveal that one day she had to go to three separate jewellers to sort out gifts and exchange things not to her liking. To someone seeking a helping hand to secure a kindergarten job, she said: "The president [of that panel]) wants 15 to 20 million lire [£3,000 to £3,300]. You need important friends to get through that one."

Mostly it was little tricks - an advance look at the paper, number-juggling to ensure the candidate was examined by the right commission, or agreeing codes and secret signals so the examiners could recognise the "paying" candidate's paper.

In one case it was making the dot on the letter i a circle, in some an agreed word in the first or last phrase, in others using a certain kind of pen.

A headmaster and his wife are also accused of organising "preparation courses". Success to those who paid was guaranteed, and the couple earned £80,000 in three years.

Such officials operate in fertile terrain. Over the past year, for the first time in a decade, there have been the first megaconcorsi - national public written exams and orals - for teaching posts. Many were secure jobs for the precari, temporary teachers who lurch for years from temporary contract to contract and school to school. Education reforms set out new criteria for teachers and many applicants feared they would never get a secure job if they did not make it this time.

There is a general assumption here that a job for life is the right of every Italian who has to support his or her family and, with this noble end, any means were justifiable. An editorial in La Stampa newspaper says stopping corruption is hard when people on modest, if not insultingly low, salaries are given power. The only solution, it suggests, is to pay them more.

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