School's Back with Fewer Lesson Hours and Limit on Absences

School's Back with Fewer Lesson Hours and Limit on Absences

One thousand classes fail to comply with 30% cap on immigrant students

ROME – Secondary education has had a makeover. Latin has disappeared from the curriculum for scientific secondary schools while classical institutes have less geography and more mathematics. The 30% cap on non-Italian students in each class has turned out to be a damp squib. Few students have been moved and a thousand classes have exemptions. But there are also timetable reductions, badges for students and automatic failure for more than 50 days' absence. Today is the first day of the school year, bringing lots of new developments and plenty of old problems, from teachers who have been on short-term contracts for years to overcrowded classrooms, missing principals and non-compliant buildings.

NEW SECONDARY SCHOOLS – The reform starts in first-year classes, involving almost 600,000 students, while other years will follow the old curriculum. There are now only six courses of study, the previous 365 experimental courses having been eliminated. Scientific secondary school remain the most popular with 115,000 enrolments, three times the number for classical schools. Human sciences schools, which replace the old teacher-training institutes, have attracted 27,000 students. Taken together, music and dance institutes have just over a thousand students, filling all the places available. The magnetic card distributed to many secondary-school students two years ago can be used to record arrivals and departures but the decision will be left up to individual schools.

SUBJECTS – The disappearance of Latin from scientific schools, and the precedence for mathematics over geography at classical institutes, are not the only changes. All courses of study will devote more teaching hours to science, physics and mathematics, always the Achilles heel of Italian students. Developments will be monitored to see whether this solves the problem or whether a new approach is required. Foreign languages also get a boost and are compulsory in all five years of secondary education. In the final year, one subject will be taught in English, a method already trialled in various schools. Across the curriculum, the total number of class hours per week falls, for example from 36 to 32 in technical and professional institutes. The duration of lessons in all secondary schools has been extended from 50 minutes to 60.

LIMIT ON NON-ITALIANS – The cap on foreigners has been applied for the first time. No class will be able to have more than 30% non-Italians. Education minister Mariastella Gelmini, who has often said that the limit is necessary to integrate youngsters from other countries, signed the circular following rejection of the Northern League's proposal of "insertion classes" for non-Italians struggling with the language. But what does the cap mean in practice? Very little. First, the minister explained that non-Italians born in Italy, or who speak Italian well, are not included in the 30%. She then said that classes could obtain permission to exceed the limit in particularly difficult circumstances. Just under a thousand exemptions have been granted, mainly to schools in Lombardy, Lazio, Tuscany and Lazio. In the end, partly because of staff cuts, few students have been moved to comply with the limit while classes that exceed it continue to do so. It shows that all too often politicians talk about school but real school is rather different.

OVERCROWDED CLASSES – Legally, the maximum number of students per class should be 25 but the limit can be waived if it is not possible to form another class. In other words, the limit exists only in theory. It has always been exceeded but with staff cuts in recent years, the situation has deteriorated. The record is held by a technical school in Genoa with a class of 38 students. However, it is too soon to say how far overcrowding has increased generally. At the beginning of the school year, students are usually moved from class to class to ease the worst situations.

UNFILLED POSTS – Unfilled teaching posts are another chronic problem that has worsened this year. The appointment of temporary teachers on one-year contracts is always a complicated business, particularly in large cities. This time, things got under way late because the economic package halted all hirings in the public sector, suspending the selection process which has to precede employment. With the block lifted, the machinery is back in motion but it is struggling to make up for lost time. In the bigger cities, some temporary teachers will not be in class at the start of the year.

ABSENCES – The rule introduced in middle schools has now been extended to secondary institutes. Students with more than 50 absences will fail the year automatically, whatever their marks are. The extension aims not just to discourage students from staging sit-ins and occupying schools. It is also a response to the "diploma factories", private schools that pass students and award them qualifications even if their attendance record is poor.

NON-COMPLIANT BUILDINGS – Some 15,000 of Italy's 40,000 schools fail to comply with building regulations, in other words almost one in two. There is even asbestos in 2,400 institutes. The government has announced spending worth a billion euros over the next year and a half but this is insufficient for everything that needs to be done.

SALARIES – Pay is one of teachers' main worries. The economic package froze seniority increments for three years and it is likely that those increments will never be paid. Ms Gelmini has said that they will be replaced by merit-related increases. Here, the problem is how to develop and implement a system to identify deserving teachers, and where to find the money to pay them. For the time being, this is only a promise but the frozen seniority increments are fact.

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