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In the Italy of the crisis and of the “demographic winter” there needs to be more and better spending on schools

“If you want democracy, first of all, to be enacted and then to endure and become more perfect, school, in the long term, can be said to be more important than Parliament, the judiciary and the Constitutional Court.” These are the words of Piero Calamandrei, one of most important members (“fathers”) of the Republic of Italy’s Constituent Assembly. They are still worth remembering today, after an election campaign that saw precious little discussion of school despite the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). This genuine political and administrative obligation for the new legislature earmarks extremely substantial resources for educational issues, seeking to establish the best conditions for the Next Generation towards which the EU’s Recovery Fund is directed, in order to attempt to exit the post-Covid-19-pandemic crisis and the resulting recession.

School is a vital location for study and learning, building up knowledge, rooting in the awareness of students, from as early as the first lessons of primary school, the values and rules of responsible citizenship and the sense of active belonging to a community, locally and nationally, and including – looking to the horizon – a European community.

Indeed, school should itself to be experienced, in the microcosm of the space of formation, as a community driven by various parties, with special attention to the young people who study, and certainly not an environment dominated by the interests of highly unionised groups (the teaching or the administrative staff).

School is an educational sphere where you “learn to learn”, at the time of the rapidly and radically changing “knowledge economy”, when humanistic and scientific knowledge represents necessary values and tools to underpin civil coexistence and sustainable, environmental and social development.

But what kind of shape is school in within Italy? A recent study by Fondazione Agnelli (Il Sole24Ore, 22 September) documents how public resources are spent badly, above all at university, and how much work this entails in order to be up to the challenges posed by other EU members, and OECD members more generally.

Italy invests approximately €75,000 for each individual student, from 6 to 15 years of age, a level above the EU average when purchasing power is taken into account. We spend too little on university, on the other hand: 0.3% of GDP. Statistically speaking, the result is an aggregated spending figure (from primary education to university) for Italy of 4.3% of GDP, against a European average of 4.9%. Low investment, low graduate population, in short.

When we look at the figures published by Fondazione Agnelli more closely, we see that when demographic decline is taken into account, there will be 12.8% fewer students in 10 years (from 2020 to 2030), whereas school staffing has already risen by 20% in the last decade (hence the high spending level). Looking at another figure, 7.272 million young people returned to the classroom this year. There were 7.5 million in 2020–21: “230,000 students lost in two years”, as the IlSole24Ore headline had it (12 September).

The figures get worse over time. This year, 2022, there will be 385,000 births according to Istat, the Italian National Institute of Statistics, 14.5% fewer than in 2021. So we’re heading rapidly towards a real “demographic winter”, with an ageing Italy and a growing generational imbalance that affects GPD, care, social security and the quantity and quality of public spending (“The percentage of Italians of working age will fall to 50% in 2050,” Istat calculates). A mortgage on the economic and social sustainability of the future.

The situation is complicated, in short, with implications in the present and for the fate of schooling. There is some good news: the proportion of students to teachers is improving (from 10.9% in 2014–15 to 8.6% in 2021–22), with potentially positive effects on teaching quality, also in light of the shift in students per class from 20.4 in 2020–21 to 19.9 this year.

But there’s bad news too: fewer teachers have open-ended contracts, and more have fixed-term contracts. Pay also remains low, with performance-based distinctions largely blocked thanks to equalising pressure from unions.

Andrea Gavosto, Director of Fondazione Agnelli, made the following comment: “It may be the case that in Italy school spending has been poor rather than low, given the disappointing results in secondary schools, markedly lower than the European averages and with huge territorial and social divides. It’s an alarm bell for government, starting from the effectiveness and efficiency with which they will be able to manage the resources of the NRRP.”

There are further figures, to dwell on. In 2021, 41% of the EU population between 24 and 34 years old had at least one degree, 57%, with respect to the OECD average. In Italy, the figure was just 28% (without going into the even more alarming lack of STEM degrees, i.e. in scientific disciplines).

Learning poverty” is also significant: 13 million people in the 25–64 age range – 39% of it – have only a middle school diploma.

The repercussions for both the labour market and development, but also for the general awareness of the extent of political and social problems – and consequently the exercise of the rights and duties of active, responsible citizenship – are evident, well-known and increasing rapidly.

School therefore requires attention. It must be re-imagined, reformed, rebuilt and relaunched as a function essential to development and civil coexistence, to enhancing the quality of democracy. Because development and democratic freedoms, the republican virtues of rights and duties, well-being and participation are intertwined.

Let us return to Calamandrei: “Turning subjects into citizens is a miracle that only school can perform.”

“If you want democracy, first of all, to be enacted and then to endure and become more perfect, school, in the long term, can be said to be more important than Parliament, the judiciary and the Constitutional Court.” These are the words of Piero Calamandrei, one of most important members (“fathers”) of the Republic of Italy’s Constituent Assembly. They are still worth remembering today, after an election campaign that saw precious little discussion of school despite the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). This genuine political and administrative obligation for the new legislature earmarks extremely substantial resources for educational issues, seeking to establish the best conditions for the Next Generation towards which the EU’s Recovery Fund is directed, in order to attempt to exit the post-Covid-19-pandemic crisis and the resulting recession.

School is a vital location for study and learning, building up knowledge, rooting in the awareness of students, from as early as the first lessons of primary school, the values and rules of responsible citizenship and the sense of active belonging to a community, locally and nationally, and including – looking to the horizon – a European community.

Indeed, school should itself to be experienced, in the microcosm of the space of formation, as a community driven by various parties, with special attention to the young people who study, and certainly not an environment dominated by the interests of highly unionised groups (the teaching or the administrative staff).

School is an educational sphere where you “learn to learn”, at the time of the rapidly and radically changing “knowledge economy”, when humanistic and scientific knowledge represents necessary values and tools to underpin civil coexistence and sustainable, environmental and social development.

But what kind of shape is school in within Italy? A recent study by Fondazione Agnelli (Il Sole24Ore, 22 September) documents how public resources are spent badly, above all at university, and how much work this entails in order to be up to the challenges posed by other EU members, and OECD members more generally.

Italy invests approximately €75,000 for each individual student, from 6 to 15 years of age, a level above the EU average when purchasing power is taken into account. We spend too little on university, on the other hand: 0.3% of GDP. Statistically speaking, the result is an aggregated spending figure (from primary education to university) for Italy of 4.3% of GDP, against a European average of 4.9%. Low investment, low graduate population, in short.

When we look at the figures published by Fondazione Agnelli more closely, we see that when demographic decline is taken into account, there will be 12.8% fewer students in 10 years (from 2020 to 2030), whereas school staffing has already risen by 20% in the last decade (hence the high spending level). Looking at another figure, 7.272 million young people returned to the classroom this year. There were 7.5 million in 2020–21: “230,000 students lost in two years”, as the IlSole24Ore headline had it (12 September).

The figures get worse over time. This year, 2022, there will be 385,000 births according to Istat, the Italian National Institute of Statistics, 14.5% fewer than in 2021. So we’re heading rapidly towards a real “demographic winter”, with an ageing Italy and a growing generational imbalance that affects GPD, care, social security and the quantity and quality of public spending (“The percentage of Italians of working age will fall to 50% in 2050,” Istat calculates). A mortgage on the economic and social sustainability of the future.

The situation is complicated, in short, with implications in the present and for the fate of schooling. There is some good news: the proportion of students to teachers is improving (from 10.9% in 2014–15 to 8.6% in 2021–22), with potentially positive effects on teaching quality, also in light of the shift in students per class from 20.4 in 2020–21 to 19.9 this year.

But there’s bad news too: fewer teachers have open-ended contracts, and more have fixed-term contracts. Pay also remains low, with performance-based distinctions largely blocked thanks to equalising pressure from unions.

Andrea Gavosto, Director of Fondazione Agnelli, made the following comment: “It may be the case that in Italy school spending has been poor rather than low, given the disappointing results in secondary schools, markedly lower than the European averages and with huge territorial and social divides. It’s an alarm bell for government, starting from the effectiveness and efficiency with which they will be able to manage the resources of the NRRP.”

There are further figures, to dwell on. In 2021, 41% of the EU population between 24 and 34 years old had at least one degree, 57%, with respect to the OECD average. In Italy, the figure was just 28% (without going into the even more alarming lack of STEM degrees, i.e. in scientific disciplines).

Learning poverty” is also significant: 13 million people in the 25–64 age range – 39% of it – have only a middle school diploma.

The repercussions for both the labour market and development, but also for the general awareness of the extent of political and social problems – and consequently the exercise of the rights and duties of active, responsible citizenship – are evident, well-known and increasing rapidly.

School therefore requires attention. It must be re-imagined, reformed, rebuilt and relaunched as a function essential to development and civil coexistence, to enhancing the quality of democracy. Because development and democratic freedoms, the republican virtues of rights and duties, well-being and participation are intertwined.

Let us return to Calamandrei: “Turning subjects into citizens is a miracle that only school can perform.”