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Part III


9. Policy directions for the future

The 90s have been a very crucial period for the Italian school system. Several times the Parliament and the Government have been trying to revise the structure of the system by introducing new curricula, new regulations, new criteria aimed at modernizing individual sectors of the educational provision, but no one thorough reform of the system has been attempted since the so-called Riforma Gentile of 1923. Therefore too many incongruencies have been affecting the system as a whole, that became particularly evident in the last years, also because of the challenging comparison with other countries so far as not only the architecture of the school system is concerned, but also and perhaps primarily its outcomes in terms of quality and quantity of the educational achievement of the students and of its impact on the transition from initial education and training to the working life.

A long and deeply involving debate both at political and social levels took place in the last years on the adequacy of the Italian school system as a whole and in its various sectors to cope with the changed and continuously changing demand of education from the individual citizens, from the labour market and from the society at large. All the components of the civil society have been involved, in particular after the National Conference on Education (1990), and this debate gave the opportunity for a careful review and analysis of the nature and functioning of the school system under its differents aspects, that brought about a number of proposals and projects for a thorough reform.

The main problems encountered in the way of reforming the school system could be identified in the real difficulty of finding a model that meets the conceptual framework and the expectations of the different political, ideological and social components. Among the disparities, still existing even now, as the global reform is to be enforced, are for instance the concept itself of basic education, the specificity of the pre-primary education as a preparatory phase to the formal schooling, the sense of maintaining primary and lower secondary school as two educational cycles well characterized in themselves even though connected within a comprehensive design of the education process centred on the student, or, as in the proposed reform, the need of overcoming the traditional scheme by unifying the two cycles in one primary education cycle as the most reasonable formula for ensuring the continuity of the educational process and preventing children from a traumatic experience of the transition from the elementary to the lower secondary school. Another topic of the lively debate of the last few years is the mission and the destiny of upper secondary schools and their capacity of preparing youths either to higher education or to the working life.

Another very important topic in the public debate is the administrative structure of the school system. The Italian system is from its very beginning a strongly centralized one. If this feature has been perceived and appreciated, for more than a century, as the best solution in view of generalising the access to basic education and to post-compulsory school as well, for harmonizing the educational supply throughout the country, and - last but not least - for creating an administrative structure able to support the management and the functioning of the school provision, now the political, social anche economical background of the country has changed deeply. Once the priority objectives have been achieved, it is time to adjust even the administrative structure of the school system to the changed demand of the society. And once again the problem is: what kind of decentralisation would fit best the characteristics and the demand of the Italian society?

In order to find out a guideline for the policy directions in designing the future of the Italian school system, the Government and in particular the current Minister of Education called for co-operation the various stakeholders who in the last few years have been contributing with their analyses, opinions, proposals and, obviously, criticisms. Among the major contributions to that debate, the review of the national policies for education, carried out in Italy by the OECD in 1997-98, has to be mentioned. At that time the reform plans were just circulated to the experts, the press, and the stakeholders of the educational service - school administrators, inspectors, principals, teachers, etc. So the Minister of Education thought that an expertise by an international organization deeply involved in the review of the national policies for education and in the production of the indicators of education systems would have been helpful, particularly in suggesting the best way for harmonizing the structure and the functioning of the Italian system with the good practice observed in other OECD countries.

The OECD review confirmed, as a matter of fact, the key perceptions of the experts and of the public opinion as regards the strong and the weak points of the educational supply as well as of the proposed reform plans. First of all, the review team stresses the historical role of the centralised system, but in the same time supports the need of some kind of decentralisation in order to match better the local situations and aims (par. 4). As regards the architecture of the school system, the OECD observes that the organization of the school cycles does not correspond to the behaviours of the students, in particular at upper secondary level (par. 47). Another point, that is since long time obvious for the Italians, is the difference between the various regions and geographical areas as regards the school outcomes in terms of educational attainment (par. 49). The review team also realizes the problems concerning the transition from initial education and training to the working life (par. 59), the need of reforming the school curricula even as regards their content (par. 67), the basic skills (par. 72-73), the introduction of the ICT (par. 76f.), the extension of compulsory schooling (par. 84).

The impact of the OECD review has been quite soft. It has basicly confirmed what the policy-makers and the various stakeholders, including the public opinion, had clearly realized in the past decades and that the Minister of Education had taken as a background for the envisaged reform. It was, indeed, a sort of check-up of the reform plans, aimed at refining the design and possibly receiving useful suggestions in order to make them more effective.

Besides the OECD review another new procedure introduced by the current Minister of Education has to be mentioned, i.e. the systematic consultation of the stakeholder and the public opinion on the goals and contents of the proposed reforms. This has been the case, for instance, of the autonomy of school institutions, of the "basic skills", of the extension of compulsory schooling to the final year of pre-primary education, of the new scheme of school cycles, etc. As a matter of fact this new style of planning and implementing the reforms has been largely appreciated and repaid with an unusual co-operation in the form of suggestions. recommendations, doubts and, obviously, criticisms.

The actual prospects of the Italian school system are outlined in the recently implemented, ongoing, and planned reforms. They really affect the system as a whole and its various dimensions and features. As regards basic education, the most promising results have to be expected from two reforms, i.e. the school cycles and the basic skills.

1. The architecture of the Italian school system is the result of several adjustments carried out through many decades according to the actual demand of the society. So the attention of policy-makers has been facused once on the elementary education as the minimum attainment to be achieved by all the citizens; another time the target has been the secondary school as the educational level preparing for the university; then come to the fore the need of extending compulsory education and therefore to modify the secondary school cycle by introducing the two cycles of lower - compulsory - and the upper secondary school - not compulsory; moreover, in different periods the State-run pre-primary schools were established, the elementary and the lower secondary school curricula reformed, and many other measures taken, usually isolated from each other, aimed at solving specific problems. The result of this way of "reforming" the school system has been that now it appears like a loose structure, the components of which are disconnected and for that detrimental for its effectiveness.

The ongoing reform of the school cycles envisages first of all the reconciliation of the various segments in order to gain a unitary, balanced and harmonious structure that preserves the specificity of the individual sections but in the same time assures their continuity through the whole educational process and the maximum effectiveness in terms of attainment level and fitness of the students for a successful transition to the working life.

The reform has been prepared by a widespread dissemination, in January 1997, of the Minister's "Articulated proposal for a re-adjustment of the school cycles". In that circumstance the Minister, Mr. Luigi Berlinguer, explained the aims of the reform as the government's committment "to interpret the prevailing needs of the society". Among the most significat guidelines of the reform the change of the scope, i.e. of the philosophical approach to education was announced: the mission of the new school should not be any longer the "transmission of knowledge", that has been the traditional core of the school provision in Italy, but rather the "transmission and acquisition of methods", still holding the the goal of developing the pupils' personality in all its dimensions and of providing them with the instruments that enable them to manage autonomously their learning throughout lifetime. In this framework the reform aims, then, at promoting a successful educational experience for all, the enhancement of the educational attainment of the individual citizens and of the society at large, the integration of education and vocational training and, for that, a smooth transition of all the youths to the working life, the development of a democratic awareness and of a culture based on the appreciation of the pluralism and freedom.

The open debate on such proposal brough about a bill that has been passed recently by the Chamber of Deputies. It defines the main goal of the education system, i.e. to promote the development of the human beings according to the rythms of their development, the differences and the identity of each person, and all this in a close co-operation between school institutions and parents (art. 1). Then it re-designes the school structure by defining three educational cycles: the infant school (Scuola dell'infanzia), i.e. the pre-primary education from 3 to 6 year of age, the basic school (Scuola di base) from 6 to 13 years of age, and the secondary school (Scuola secondaria) from 13 to 18 years of age. Apparently the reform affects only the basic school which unifies in a single cycle the existent elementary and middle schools and shortens of one year their overall duration, keeping the length of secondary school unchanged - 5 years - with the only modification of the entry and leaving age: 13 to 18 instead of 14 to 19. But this is only a first impression, since the innovation affects deeply both cycles.

As for basic school, its comprehensive 7-year scheme involves a thorough re-designing not only of the curricula, but also of the teaching-learning methods and of the initial training of the teachers. Moreover it implies a new definition of the basic skills to be included in the curricula as well as a new concept for grading them through the teaching-learning process, with the expected result that children, as they conclude their basic education, have achieved a stock of knowledge, competences and skills that allows them to continue their school career at secondary level and to manage their learning activity throughout their lifetime.

The secondary school, on the other side, should change several features of its traditional layout. The main innovation is, of course, the introduction of the obligation to attend at least the first two years, i.e. up to the age of 15. This means that the first two grades of the secondary school should fulfil a twofold function: to enhance, quantitativaly and qualitatively as well, the basic skills acquired in the first cycle, and to prepare the pupils either to the final cycle of secondary school that brings them to the diploma or to the vocational training and then to the working life. Therefore, an obvious implication of the reform should be the development of completily new curricula which can match the changed mission of the school at this level. Another consequence should be, according to the bill mentioned above, the introduction of new professional performances, like educational and vocational counselling and guidance and a closer co-operation with the local authorities and the business world. Finally, as regards the post-compulsory follow-up two main innovations can be observed: (a) the homogenization of the different streams - humanistic, scientific, technical and technological, artisti, and musical - not only as regards their official denomination as Licei, but also as their educational dignity; and (b) the up-grading of the vocational training that will be compulsory for all the youths who do not continue their school career at secondary level.

Once the reform will be finalized and passed by the Parliament, the basic education will show, then, in Italy a completely new configuration: it will assure that all the citizens achieve as the minimum educational attainment either a diploma at upper secondary school level or a vocational qualification that enables them to face the requirements of the labour-market.

2. The definition of the basic skills is a more complicated task. As a matter of fact, it does not concern only Italy, but all the countries, even the most developed ones, as shown for instance by the several studies carried out on this topic in many countries and, in particular, by the ongoing research project co-ordinated by the OECD. In view of a thorough reform of the Italian school system the Minister of Education Mr. Berlinguer appointed in 1997 a special committee, called "Commissione dei Saggi" with the task of defining which are the fundamental knowledge, competences and skills that will be irremissible in the school education of the coming years. The proceedings of this committee have been published and became one of the prefered topic in the recent debates on the basic education. But the Commissione dei Saggi did not complete its job. The experts are still working on the basis of a broad consultation with the academic world and also taking into account the contribution coming from the research and the experience in other countries. They have been particularly encouraged in their task from the OECD review team, which agreed fully with them on all their initial statements on basic education in Italy. The OECD review team wrote, indeed, that "it is clear that although some of the commission's conclusions are drawn from the reflections on the new culture, other derive from a comparison between these reflections and the current state of Italian education. The report summarising their work contains a number of direct and indirect criticisms of the spirit and content of the school curriculum. While it is not our place to join in these criticisms, we can point out that much of the criticism directed at the school and university culture corresponds to trends that may be found in many other countries. Education, so the argument goes, ought to instil values, arouse interest and curiosity, develop taste and lead to a certain level of independence and self-control through reading, writing, the arts and manual work. Instead it is sinking into abstraction, concentrating on dry book-learning and the memorisation of facts, turning out young people who, according to some criteria, know a great deal and are capable of getting high marks in exams but have not learnt how to think, have failed to acquire any culture. Moreover, there is an ever-present tendency to add new subjects and expand the scope of existing ones. Confronted with over-inflated curricula, the most pupils can due is to try and memorise a few important elements. We thoroughly endorse the basic tenet of the reform, namely to switch from a style of education that overemphasises the transmission of knowledge to one that encourages reflection and experiment and facilitates the acquisition and integration of knowledge and skills" (OECD, 1998, par. 67).

The task of re-designing the school curricula on the basis of a new definition of the basic skills should be also shared by the school institutions, which will be competent for operationalising the curricula according to a few general principles, as: (a) designing a map of basic cultural structures which is necessary in view of the future development of the various skills and abilities like understanding, performing, decision-making, planning, carrying out cultural, social and work integration processes; (b) establishing an educational framework in which the irremissible value of historical tradition is recognised and in the same time linked to the contemporary and the social and cultural context; and (c) assuring the consistency between the education and training pathways and the job perspectives of young people, i.e. between the competences, the skills and the abilities achieved in the school and those required by the labour-market.

These two reform areas are not isolated. Indeed they are included in a broader reform plan which affects virtually all the dimensions and aspects of the educational provision, as for instance the decentralization project, the autonomy of the school institutions, the new scheme of teacher initial and in-service training, the evaluation of the educational provision, etc. The reform is still at its first steps. Most of it has to be finalised at legislation level, and then regulated, operationalised and implemented. It is obviously a medium/long-term process that will take a number of years to show the fitness of the measures taken and prove consistent and effective. Nevertheless both the government and the public opinion seem to be optimist. Moreover, the autonomy of school institutions, that will become effective from year 2000, is already, in its experimental phase, proving to be not only a potential but actually an essential support to the success of the planned reforms. They are, indeed, the focal point of the educational provision, so that their enthusiasm in experiencing according to the guidelines of the reform and in involving the various actors in the debate is considered to be the best premise and a guarantee of success.


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