In every corner of Italy, in school buildings that should be hotbeds of knowledge and opportunity, a silent and devastating crisis is taking place. It’s a phenomenon that undermines the future of many young Italians, leaving a trail of dissatisfaction, inequality, and lack of opportunity which is having a profound impact on society.
School dropout affects young Italians from North to South, it’s a subtle phenomenon which happens far from the public gaze but which is laying the foundations for a difficult future for school-age young people.
Although there has been an improvement, as shown in the latest data in Istat’s [Italy’s national statistical agency] annual report for 2023, it is not yet a phenomenon that has been fully dealt with. Between 2012 and 2022, the proportion of young people between 25 and 34 who achieved at least one upper secondary school qualification went up 6 per cent and now stands at 78%. However, this is still 7.4% below the European average.
Among 18-24 year olds in 2022, 11.5% abandoned their studies early, without achieving a higher secondary diploma. Here, the gap from the European average has come down over a decade from 4.7 per cent 10 years ago to only 1.9% now. But it’s an issue which demands proper scrutiny given the fact that the European average for leaving school early is 9.6% and Italy is near the bottom of the EU league table for school dropouts.
So what is happening to our kids? The Istat report mentioned above also reveals that one in two young people (47.7% of 18-34 year olds) can be considered deprived in at least one of the key areas of well-being: (education and work, social cohesion, health, subjective well-being and living area). Over 1.6 million of these young people (that’s 15.5 per cent of the youth population), are particularly disadvantaged – showing signs of deprivation in two or more areas.
According to data collected by Invalsi [the Italian National Institute for the Evaluation of the Educational and Training System], in 2022 it was estimated that total school dropout, implicit and explicit, is in excess of 20% at a national level.
Homing in on the issue, Istat reports that in the school year 2021/22, almost 1 in 10 young people who achieved the upper secondary diploma had competence in Italian and mathematics that was more basic than that of second year students. Here we touch on the phenomenon of ‘implicit dropout’, that is, the failure of students to achieve basic levels of competence in key school subjects. The percentage of boys who do not reach adequate levels of reading and comprehension went from 34% in 2018 to 39% in 2022. In mathematics, in the same period, the share went from 39% to 44%.
School dropout in Italy: a complex phenomenon
School dropout is a complex phenomenon. The standard definition is that ‘dropout’ is the lack of, or incomplete or irregular participation in education by boys and girls of school age. In fact, it can involve total abandonment of education, early exit from the classroom, absenteeism, passive attendance, or long gaps in a young person’s studies.
Added to this phenomenon is that of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), i.e. young people who do not study, do not follow training courses and do not work. According to ISTAT data from 2022, they represent 19% of boys and girls between 15 and 19. This phenomenon mostly affects women, disabled people, migrants, those who come from complex family situations and those who live in disadvantaged areas.
The data reveals an important truth that needs to be heard in public debate: every student who drops out of school represents an educational failure. Something didn’t work for that pupil. And, probably, the problem lies in the way the education system is organised. There seems to be a need for a more equitable school model – one which can respond adequately to the needs of each individual pupil. We need an educational model that also considers the emotional sphere and the individual talents of pupils. This is what young people of the new generations are asking for and it is also what is happening in the world of work. Greater attention needs to be paid to soft skills and human and relational aspects of education. But we are seeing an important U-turn being made: more personalization and less generalization.
“The real paradigm shift requires a transformation in the structure of the school itself, bringing the focus more to bear on people and their potential, not on the content or programs as happens now,” says Luca Taverna, co-founder of IEXS, the International Experiential School.
“The school model that we are familiar with was designed for a completely different era from our own. It’s a product of the 18th century, the culture of the Enlightenment and the economic circumstances of the First Industrial Revolution. It is based on the principle of working hard to get into a profession. Today’s boys and girls just don’t believe in that model. It’s outmoded and stressful for them.”
And the data confirms it.
Taverna continues: “Today’s students drop out of school basically because they are unhappy there. It’s exactly the same as when adults decide to leave their jobs. The dynamics would seem to involve a lack of listening, sharing and valorization of the individual. Where traditional teaching offers standardized models to which each student is asked to adapt, the paradigm shift proposed by IEXS is to evaluate each student as a separate individual, with his or her unique talents and potential.
“In a society where sensitivity is seen as a weakness, it is important to understand that it is, rather, a talent, a gift. For us it is important to stimulate the cognitive and emotional capacities of every boy and girl to create a balanced growth that can then allow them to face the challenges and opportunities of life.”
The three intelligences of the human being
The International Experiential School which opened its doors 7 years ago in Reggio Emilia, in northern Italy, is a place where children learn to live, have real experiences and draw useful life lessons from them. The model is based on the development of the three main human intelligences: logical intelligence, emotional intelligence and bodily intelligence.
“Raising a boy or a girl is like growing a plant. Adolescence is not the age for reaping fruit, it’s the age of nutrition. We adults must feed them even if they don’t bear fruit. We have to believe in them,” adds Taverna.
“Each student must rediscover himself or herself during their educational journey. Although adults want schools to come up with the magic recipe for their children’s education, it should not be forgotten that school is also that place where we find our own identity. And this is not the same for every student. The age of adolescence is very delicate and represents the period in which the identity of boys and girls is formed. For this reason, school is also the place where they can and must make mistakes.”
The curriculum at IEXS is a full one. They start from nursery school classes and proceed right through to second grade in secondary school offering seven options: a Human Sciences High School, a Scientific High School, a Bio-Medical High School, an IT Technical Institute, an International Sports High School, an International Marketing and Finance school, a Technical Institute and a Fashion and Design Technical Institute.
Afternoon ‘Learning Labs’ are also offered for everyone, ranging from extra tuition in some specific subjects, to preparation courses for university tests, craft workshops, courses for professionals in various fields and sports activities. And for young people who want to continue their studies there is the option to access UniEXIS, a University with 9 different Faculties, 4 Masters and 4 Experiences to prepare students for the world of work.
IEXS programs are experience oriented from nursery school right through to university. Traditional grades based on learning of knowledge are not given, but children and young people are accompanied throughout their journey and problems are managed as and when they arise, encouraging self-evaluation and a sense of responsibility for the results obtained.
This same approach is adopted for children with learning disabilities( whose numbers seem to be increasing substantially in recent years). Given that Italy does not have a national database for neuropsychiatric disorders, the only official source available is that of the relevant Government Ministry and relates to school certifications drawn up as stipulated in Law 170 of Italy’s legal code.
Therefore, all students who do not follow a certification path are excluded and regional fluctuations have to be taken into account. According to the data available, however, we can already see that in the 2018/2019 school year there were 298,114 children with a certified condition (equating to 4.9 per cent of the total school population). In the 2019/2020 school year this rose to 318,678 students (5.3 per cent of the total) and in the following year (2020/2021) to 326,548 or 5.4 per cent of the total.
Taverna has strong views on the data: “In 99% of cases the issues are not teaching-related and to see them as such is simplistic. Here we see them as characteristics which constitute an added value and we focus on them. It is not enough to offer these kids compensatory tools; it is important to make them understand the value of their uniqueness. Each of us, if we think about it, uses different tools in the learning phase. This is also part of the individual learning journey.”
New opportunities for the future arise from human values
To date, the northern Italian school has welcomed over 400 students. Of these, 60 boys and girls obtained their high school diploma, 80% of whom then chose a university path. Of the latter, 50% decided to work and study at the same time while 20% of the total started working at the end of secondary school.
“One of the principles on which our training model is based is that the best learning occurs in groups. Added to this is the value of collaboration which is a fundamental element of growth,” says Taverna.
He adds: “For this reason we have planned an Hours Bank that we make available to the community that revolves around the school. When the kids arrive late, we invite them to do push-ups, 10 for every minute they are late! If, however, they accumulate more or if they have to take responsibility for incorrect actions, then they make their time available to offer their services to the wider community.”
The IEXS model also includes a mindfulness path. “At the beginning of each day the children are offered the opportunity to dedicate 10 minutes to mindfulness and meditation, to find the right emotional and psychological ‘place’ that allows them to make the most of the lesson periods. We firmly believe in this because it truly places the children at the center and teaches them to listen to themselves and to each other.
Taverna adds: “The students’ state of mind has a profound impact on the entire relational approach on which our educational process is based: their relationship with themselves, with classmates, with teachers. Meditation improves the ability to manage moods and impulses, and strengthens their ability to counteract stress, anxiety, and depression. In other words, it allows us to maintain a profitable balance in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, stimulating everyone’s talents so that they grow through their relationships.”
This approach has led to impressive results: 90% of the kids show an increase in their self-confidence. This is evident too in the anonymous questionnaires filled in every year which measure both the academic performance and the emotional state and well-being of the children. In 7 years of work on students’ emotional intelligence, the results show a 33% growth in school satisfaction ratings and a 28% growth in children who feel appreciated by their teachers. The number of students who consider school activities ‘stimulating’ increased by 24% and those who say they like going to school compared to other contexts increased by the same rate. The results appear to be better than those emerging from the questionnaires of other schools, as is highlighted in the study, “Wellbeing in the classroom and learning” edited by Mario Polito.
Teachers who are up for a methodology that goes against the grain
In such an unconventional educational framework, the role of teachers is fundamental. “This is one of the most complex aspects: before we recruit a teacher for the staff here we look at around 1000 candidates. What we are looking for is not just a teacher who can simply share lesson content. Those who work in our school take on the role of a guide who stimulates and helps students in a delicate phase of their development and who is prepared to act as a positive role model. He or she is trained to be able to discover and enhance the potential of each student. For this reason a new teacher must be willing to get involved with training and have a real human focus,” explains Taverna.
It’s a reassuring picture that serves as a concrete example of a paradigm shift. But the question arises as to how this model can fit into the traditional school landscape and how sustainable this path is for families.
“We are an international school center and we offer variable and accessible fees because the idea is to give all children the opportunity to attend our school. Our plans include opening a center in Milan, and exporting the same model to a different area. Regarding the current school set-up, I would want to make clear that we have no intention of replacing public schools but rather we wish to work alongside them in the hope of a more collaborative future. Schools can have a social and economic value as well as being a safe place for children to grow.”
Individual growth starts at school
The success of a young person’s schooling is a process that has a lot to do with individual growth. The lack of stimuli and resources that lead youngsters to abandon school inevitably has repercussions on the formation of their social, cognitive and emotional skills. Like a disruptive domino effect, this impacts negatively on the professional outcomes of young people as well as on their psycho-physical wellbeing.
According to Istat data, eliminating school dropout would have a positive impact too on a country’s GDP of somewhere in the range of 1.4% – 6.8%. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, because the public spending invested in education – which in 2021 in Italy was 4.1% of GDP – would come back into the system thanks to the work and productivity of those who were able to benefit from the original spending. Secondly, because high levels of education favor the application and use of new technologies and new skills, this virtuous circle would help reverse the trend of poverty by interrupting the current vicious circle. In Italy, intergenerational transmission of poverty is more marked than in most other European Union countries: almost a third of adults between 25-49 at risk of poverty come themselves from families which, when they were 14, were in a bad financial way.
Any attempt to improve a country cannot ignore the need to nurture the education system. It is only via an effective training pathway that it is possible to prevent poverty and social exclusion. A good education system means that just as individual values such as empathy, kindness, sharing and collaboration can be fostered, the maintenance of human values and community spirit can be promoted and every form of discrimination can be tackled. If school is an important laboratory for understanding the needs, difficulties and resources of boys and girls, then it is time we stopped and really began to observe it. And we can be sure that an education that is fit for purpose in the modern world is eminently achievable.
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