ROME (Reuters) - Thousands of students and teachers marched in Italian cities on Friday to protest against the government’s education reforms and spending cuts.
Holding banners with slogans such as “they are destroying knowledge” and “let’s rebuild the university”, protesters in hard hats, chains and masks vented their anger at reforms planned by Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini.
“We ask for investment in education, measures for building schools and the right to study, more rights for students,” La Rete degli Studenti network said in a statement.
Gelmini, a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party, defended her reforms.
“It’s indispensible to continue on the road of reforms, we have to aim for quality schools,” she said. “To meet these objectives we are reviewing the inefficient mechanisms that have weakened Italian schools in the past.”
Italian schools rank below average for key subjects in countries measured by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in areas such as teaching ability and knowledge and skills acquired by students. Lagging education standards have long been noted as a handicap for the Italian economy.
The reforms, expected to lead to several billion euros in government savings through 2012, include the introduction of a single teacher for elementary school classes, as opposed to a number of teachers for different subjects.
They also foresee cuts in teaching hours at secondary schools and time limits on research at universities.
Gelmini argues the reforms are needed to prepare students effectively for work and to bring the system in line with international standards. Protesters oppose what they see as efforts to cut as much government spending as possible.
Students also opposed cuts to funding of local authorities, which are part of austerity measures that have fuelled several worker protests in Italy in recent months, encouraging closer cooperation between student and worker movements.
Along with the marches in about 50 cities across Italy, teachers and lecturers also plan to hold regular strikes until December in opposition to the reforms.
Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Janet Lawrence
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