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Relaunching education with good teachers and with cognitive capital for development

“Restarting from school” is a claim by Italian premier Matteo Renzi and among the priorities of his government’s plans. Urgent reform after a long period when education was gradually alienated from political policies and hit by strict public spending cuts. As well as a long-term strategic decision if Italy is to be given solid development prospects in terms of quantity (with higher growth of the GDP) and above all of quality (the “balanced and sustainable well-being” which the statistics body Istat has begun to evaluate). A lucky coincidence: a few days ago Italian TV channel Rai1 broadcast the drama about Alberto Manzi, the teacher in the programme Non è mai troppo tardi [“It’s never too late”], a success from the early Sixties which taught millions of Italians, hitherto illiterate, to read and write. A cultural and civil choice by an Italy pursuing dignity and freedom in a TV programme. Its current rerun is an excellent idea which has gained critical and public acclaim. A commendable suggestion at a time when the knowledge economy triumphs: without good education there is no competition worthy of the name, throughout the country as a corporation. Furthermore without quality training in knowledge and critical thought there is no democracy worthy of the name. Teacher Manzi was a good endorser or better still an intelligent interpreter of the positive links between education, citizenship (with the system of correlation between rights and duties) and dynamic economic growth, exactly fifty years ago. What about today?

This is an ignorant country, alas. Italy, with 5% of the population held back by instrumental illiteracy (i.e. unable to read or write) and, worse still, with 33% of the population functionally illiterate, i.e. unable to understand a newspaper article, a public speech or an instructions sheet (in other words one Italian out of three is unable to participate in social and professional living in which words carry weight). Things are no better also among the new generations: the Pisa survey tells us that one fifteen-year-old out of five does not understand Italian (in difficulty when faced with words such as esimere [“exempt”], desumere [“deduce”], facezie [“witticisms”], propedeutico [“preparatory”]). The situation is worse still in southern Italy where more than a third of the youth do not understand the instructions leaflet for the flu vaccine).

Italy ranks behind among OECD countries in the number of graduates (just 15%). Italy which has seen a reduction of 90,000 in the number of university enrolments in the past ten years. Italy is also afflicted by the overwhelming numbers of NEETs: 2,200,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 34 who are not studying or working.

The fault lies with a mediocre education system which the rankings of the World Economic Forum put in 70th place, among the 148 countries in the survey. Above all however it is the responsibility of the entire country and its ruling classes who have devalued education, culture, the role of teachers (low pay, little responsibility, decline in professional and social standing) and the actual function of training, often reducing it to a banal instrument of economistic needs(education consisting of English, computer and business studies for a work force which can rapidly find employment in the world of work), yet thus preventing the strengthening of a virtuous circle between knowledge and skills, educational culture and corporate culture, the true lynchpin of a competitive and sustainable economy.

“Restarting from school” thus means opting for massive investments in buildings (collapsing classrooms, inadequate laboratories, unusable gyms), in equipment (books, computers, broad band, computer tools, research tools and structures), in teachers (quality training, both technical and teacher training: a good teacher does not just know his subject but is a person with a passion for teaching, of which in fact the story of Manzi and many other teachers working today are good examples; and therefore quality recruiting, rewards for merit, adequate pay), in curricula and the relations between education and the world of work.

This is a far-ranging policy to be launched straightaway. “Those who sow dates do not eat dates” says an Arab proverb quoted by Alessandro D’Avenia, first-rate education expert (in La Stampa of 26 February). In other words a decision is needed now about the future face of Italy in the timespan of the next two generations, launching a virtuous system of training and growth. Otherwise, without quality education, there will be no economic and civil growth.

A suitable opportunity has arisen. Italy has the oldest body of teachers in Europe, with 53% of teachers over the age of 50 who therefore will retire in ten or fifteen years’; time. The opportunity should be grasped, in this period, of bringing into education around 400,000 new teachers with proper training for an absolute turnaround in the quality of teaching for the new generations of Italians (quite the opposite of the “amnesties” for casual workers applied to date with less than brilliant results for education as in fact the Pisa data show). We need “the spark of good teachers” as written by Franco Lorenzoni in Il Sole24Ore of 16 February) on the subject of the conversation between a great education expert, Lorenzo Altieri, and his sixteen-year-old grandson Leonardo Menon, who asks ideas and knowledge from education for a good future.

“Investing in cognitive capital will make us rich“ is the suggestion made by Gilberto Corbellini (La Stampa, 26 February) when discussing education, universities and research, i.e. a programme of reforms and investments which add value to the actual strengths of Italy, its culture, roots and the ability to merge humanism and sciences as demonstrated extensively in the country’s history. Going to school and reforming and relaunching schools, staking on human capital and human development, on growth and civilisation.