The Covid 19 pandemic highlighted and brought to light some enduring limitations in the national school system. Italian pupils are not only performing under the OECD average in the main subjects analyzed (Math, Reading and Science), but they also seem to be struggling to cope with an ever-changing social sphere. Rather than levelling out differences, schools end up reproducing existing inequalities, fostering performance-related anxieties, and generating – one among the highest levels in Europe – skills misalignment with the job market. Several observations and informed opinions seem to point to fact that schools are based on a bygone “one-size-fits-all” model, outdated and rigid curricula and disciplining-by-design dynamics that leave little space for self-determination. Furthermore, schools have troubling relationships with their territories (neighbourhoods, towns, etc) and fail both to leverage their cultural and social development and to transfer onto students the skills required by local employers. With limited awareness of the consequences of choices taken, “good” or privileged students in their early years are overwhelmingly channeled into humanities and science-based university patterns, while the disadvantaged ones into professionalizing high schools. Meanwhile, degrees of satisfaction with one’s educational patterns remain low. Attempts to transform schools into multifunctional centers capable of promoting individuals’ development and at the same time contributing to the social and cultural revitalization of the surrounding territories have been made, and the case studies that generated the discussion are listed below.
The Working group titled School and Territories for New Educational Alliances tried to build on these examples identifying the most relevant successes and challenges they were met with. If achievements varied widely depending on the local contexts and on who the actors promoting those projects were (third sector, local governments, or private sector) some clear common ground was found with regards to the factors hampering the implementation of solutions to the aforementioned issues: lack of legal grounding and institutional structure in support, lack of funds and hardships in granting sustainability to those projects when actors involved inevitably changed.In such context the group identified “Transitions” as the crucial conceptual target of its action, here intended both as the passage through subsequent school and life blocks (Elementary-middle school, middle-high school, high-school to university/work) but also as the reason why pupils follow a determined path rather than another one: how they feel, what information about themselves and the world surrounding them they are endowed with, and consequently, what they dream of and aspire to. Several elements were recognized to be needed to encourage more conscious and effective transitions.
Pupils need not only to develop a set of soft skills, such as the ability to interact and collaborate with one another, recognize and pursue their will confidently and independently, and find creative solutions. They also need to be exposed to – and to experience – the several options available for their life paths as well as some context on the systems and territories they are immersed in. A program seeking more thoughtful choices was recognized as one targeting not only the wellbeing of students but also the development of an active and responsible citizenship, the effectiveness of local job markets, and the socio-cultural development of the neighborhoods where schools are built in. To do so, radical change has been deemed necessary, throughout different phases of the school path. Moving from the common issues that emerged in the case studies and the objective we referred to, the working group elaborated a wide ranging proposal for reform, which seeks to structure the missing legal framework as well as to establish the multi-actor operative governance needed.
The proposal for reform emerged from the working group and named “90 days Skills and Knowledge Swap” imagines periods of mutual exchange between schools and the surrounding territories during – or right before – crucial “Transition years.” The last year of elementary school, the third year of middle school, the second and the last year of high school are considered the transition years of reference. In such four skill swap periods, we envisage regular lessons to be suspended for three months to allow for students to gather skills and knowledge which are necessary for their personal development and consequent conscious decision-making but not contemplated in regular frontal lessons. Specific activities need to be pondered according to the territory they are enacted in, the actors available to participate and the age group to which they are referred to. Yet, they should encompass moments of knowledge sharing both inside and outside the school buildings.
Local artisans, actors from the third sector, artists, professionals, representatives of institutions and worker unions, tutors, older students should be involved in the organization of various activities in the school, as well as in hosting students at their workplaces. From orienteering courses to internships for older students to role games for younger ones, flipped classrooms and masterclasses, peer-learning, tutoring and day visits to interesting sites of the territory should characterize the duties of children in those months. An office should be established in every school to gather proposals from the territory, tutor students to navigate the options they can choose, evaluate and validate activities as alternatives to regular lessons.
One student could dedicate the whole period to a specific activity, such as doing an internship, following an intensive acting course, or pursuing service learning and volunteering initiatives while another could explore different options in the territory, follow the projects, workshop and alternative lessons activated inside the school or meet with the school tutor and mental health service to learn more about his/her own prospects. Moments of knowledge and experience sharing should be held regularly to assure continued flow of information between external actors, students, their parents, and teachers about the options available and the lessons to take from them. Several differing activities could be included in such a framework with previous approval of the dedicated office, upon condition that it seeks to develop civic conscience, work skills, broader horizons and understanding of the social sphere, exercising cultural endeavors or gathering D.I.Y., nature and care knowledge.
Such an initiative would require changes on several levels and the involvement of multiple actors. At first a national legal framework, with dedicated funds should allow for school reform and the set-up of a political governance at the regional level. This should be in charge of ensuring the establishment and granting sustainability to a coordinating office with some full-time employees in every school. Regional and municipal institutions would take care of the operative implementation of the program and of organizing events and refresher courses to ensure good practices and ideas circulating between different schools. Subsequently, the schools, and crucially their students, their parents, the teachers, and the headmasters should activate their networks to support the coordinating office at gathering initiatives. Local third sector organizations such as sports clubs, volunteering cultural and recreational associations, should propose activities and share their spaces and time to make proposals. Similarly, local productive enterprises, cinemas, theaters, local artisans, and workers unions could do the same, proposing day visits, internships, courses, labs/workshops, and masterclasses that students could follow. For three months the schools would be local centers where knowledge and experiences are gathered and shared, to inform students’ decisions and bring far reaching development through better alignment with the needs of the surrounding territories.