ROME (Reuters) - At dawn before lessons could start last week, high school pupils at the Nomentano Science School in a northern suburb of Rome slipped chains around the gates and blocked the doors with chairs taken from classrooms.
Between the ragged European Union flag and Italian tricolour over the entry they hung a new banner: a white sheet spray painted with the word “Occupied”.
With youth unemployment more than three times the national average and Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity policies biting into education spending, high school and university students have moved to the front of anti-government protests.
As strikes swept Europe on Wednesday, teenagers armed with makeshift riot shields painted to look like the covers of famous books led a march of thousands through Rome. The demonstration ended in violent clashes, with riot police chasing protesters down the banks of the Tiber under clouds of teargas.
In a speech this week at Milan’s Bocconi University, where he was an economics professor before becoming prime minister, Monti expressed sympathy, saying young people were paying for “serious errors accumulated over the past decades”.
Nomentano is one of more than a dozen schools around Rome to be seized by students in a revolt against reforms and economic crisis cuts imposed by Monti’s technocrat government.
Student Nicholas Giordano, 18, pointed to gaping holes in the school’s outdoor paving and its broken roofs.
“There are toilets that haven’t worked for months. When it rains, in some classrooms the water comes in,” Giordano said. “We want to show the government that this is unacceptable.”
Students have been camping inside the school in sleeping bags since Monday, and said their occupation would last at least through the week.
Proposals which the CGIL union says will shave 182 million euros from schools’ annual budgets have become a rallying point for groups that oppose Monti from across the political spectrum, from neo-fascists to the far left.
Italy’s young people are among the hardest hit by an economy that has been dipping in and out of recession since 2008. The youth unemployment rate is 35 percent.
Italy has repeatedly cut education spending in recent years, despite allocating just 4.9 percent of gross domestic product to education according the most recent OECD figures, from 2009. Of the 31 members of the group of rich countries for which it had data, only the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia spent less.
Concern increased last week when the head of the association representing local governments said planned cuts to regional spending would force schools to extend Christmas holidays.
“We do not have the money to pay to heat the classrooms,” Antonio Saitta told a conference.
For those who do find work after graduation, university has not always led to skilled jobs: according to the Bank of Italy, one in four employed graduates were “overqualified” in 2011, working as waiters, farm labourers or in other jobs that do not require a degree, a rise of two percentage points from 2009.
Student anger is focused on an education reform bill going through parliament that would give schools more autonomy and allow them to accept other sources of funding than the state, which protesters believe is intended to encourage privatisation.
Professor Antonio Cocozza, a specialist in the economics of education at Italy’s LUISS University, said reforms to give schools control over their curriculums were needed so schools could adjust their teaching to the needs of the market.
“There is a risk an entire generation may not find employment, or may not find an occupation that matches their studies,” Cocozza said. “I agree with austerity, but we must invest at the same time, otherwise we risk not being ready for economic recovery in the future.”
The occupations, which began in a seaside district of the capital before spreading from school to school, are organised by disparate student groups united by anger at austerity. They reflect disillusionment with mainstream politics across society.
“The government runs the risk of finding itself at odds with a large part of the population,” said Federico Brugnola, 17, who said about a thousand of Nomentano’s 1,400 students supported the occupation. “All those angry people will begin to rise up. Italy risks becoming another Greece.”
In a result that could presage national elections in five months, an October vote in Sicily made the anti-political party of comedian Beppe Grillo the island’s largest political force.
Among youth groups that have gained prominence is the far-right Blocco Studentesco, whose members describe themselves as modern-day fascists, venerate dictator Benito Mussolini, and want banks, utilities, telecoms and transport nationalised.
The students of Nomentano said protests would continue even after they return to classes.
“This will not stop at the end of the week. This will not stop with the elections. In two years I’ll be going to university and I will continue the struggle there,” Brugnola said. “We will continue to protest until things get better. This is a fight for our future.”
Reporting by Naomi O'Leary