Thursday, 18 October 2012

Mediterranean stories

Italy’s efforts to survive as a functioning economy and democracy as well as remain in the eurozone have captured a fair share of the economic and business news recently, particularly since the Monti government has focussed its efforts on the “piano per la crescita”, the growth and development-oriented follow-up to the much needed austerity and war against tax evasion. After about one year of rope walking, with the vested interest of the unions, liberal professions (surely including the lawyers, which are the largest profession in the Parliament), taxi drivers, etc. on one side and economic and social reality on the other, Prime Minister Monti has achieved some reasonable results which seem to upset everybody. Too much change for the nay sayers and not enough for the “aye”. Reforming Italy is a mammoth task and, by the standards of the last 15 years, probably Mr Monti did well enough. He seems to continue to be the most popular politician in spite of the real pain he inflicted on the average taxpayer.
Il bell paese as always, is wonderful and unpredictable. One of the fairly popular new parties created as a reaction to the country's apparent inability to heal itself is a new movement that borrowed its name from a hotel category (“Movimento Cinque Stelle”) and is led by a stand-up comedian, Beppe Grillo, a weird combination between Robin Williams and Serge Gainsborough but without the humour of one and the poetry of the other. In terms of political programme, he seems to advocate for a better way of doing politics and an increased competence for the country’s leaders by, and I am quoting, “fighting against global warming”. One of his guys won, by everybody’s surprise including his, the elections for mayor in Bologna.
We sometimes encounter little gems of stories that somehow, and not by careful analysis and thorough investigation, offer some kind of distilled wisdom able to explain complex issues. Taxi drivers throughout the world are often depositories of such treasures. This one comes from a friend of mine and illustrates the incredibly complex and large waste that and overdeveloped, incompetent and corrupt state can generate.
Campania Felix, as the ancient Romans used to call it, is today one of the largest and most populous regions in Italy’s mezzogiorno. Poor and corrupt as one suspects, it suffers from most maladies that poison the country’s southern half. Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia is unfortunately very present.
A university in the region of Campania, following instructions from the Ministry of Education, University and Research concerning the new teacher qualification program, has organised a competition to select 25 sports teachers for the region’s schools, something that one may think it is fairly straightforward. Well, not so much. In a region with Spanish-levels of unemployment, working for the state is still seen as one of the best professional alternatives not for the pay but for the fringe benefits: little work (i.e. 18 hours a week), no requirements to perform, steel-plated job security, plenty of time to do something else on the side. No surprise that Italy has about 1 million teachers, probably the largest single profession in the country with the lowest birth rate in Europe for many years now.
The selection started with a couple of exams, where only graduates from Scienze Motorie (five years university degree) were allowed to participate. The exams where thorough and difficult. My friend, an intelligent person with high work ethic and international doctoral experience had to study hard a couple of months. The testing included multiple written tests as well as interviews for the whole 500 plus candidates, a long and complex affair aimed at selecting the 25 best candidates. The successful ones will then be required to go on a one-year post graduate course where they will study more or less the same stuff they did in their long five years of university training, most likely with the same teachers. Once they graduate, they will be able to go in secondary schools and teach physical education.
One would expect that with this level of requirements Campania is a record provider of Olympic champions. Unfortunately not so because in spite of wasting a lot of money and resources in preparing PE teachers, a large proportion of the region’s schools does not have appropriate sports facilities and, on direct indication from the school director, teachers avoid PE classes because the “ragazzi” can get hurt while doing some kind of physical exercise. No surprise then that almost 52% of the children and 21% of the teenagers in the region are overweight or obese and nobody seems to see the irony of this whole situation. In the meantime, the complicated set of exams for the 500 candidates goes ahead, spiced up with complaints and legal actions that question the clarity of the questions. However, in a just under two years, the 25 happy and lucky graduates will be able, after at least six years of graduate and post-graduate studies (one can re-take one or more years in case of failure during university more or less at will) will be able to claim their PE teacher salaries from schools with no facilities and PE hours only on paper. On the other side, chubby pupils will be sitting at their desks throughout the long school-week (which includes Saturdays) and will be able to nibble on their panini during the nominal PE class. Then they'll go home to listen to their parents complaining some more about the unbearable taxes regime.