Since the creation of the scuola materna statale in 1969 (previously, nursery education was in the hands of the private sector, which usually meant the Catholic Church) the percentage of three to six-year-olds attending nursery school has risen steadily, reaching 95 per cent in 1994. With its full-day timetable (8am to 4pm) the scuola materna offers an important free social service.
But it would be wrong to consider it as just a pre-school parking place for children whose parents are out at work. Three years ago, as part of a world-wide survey, the American weekly Newsweek identified a nursery school in Reggio Emilia as the best in the world. The school, the 'Diana', was described as "more like a cheerful greenhouse than a public kindergarten". Reggio Emilia is still basking in the reflected glory, but there are plenty of other nursery schools which could emulate the 'Diana' in its attention to the environment, its fostering of a wide variety of pre-school skills, and its central belief that all children are different.
With the new orientamenti (guidelines) published in 1990 that replace those of 1969, the scuola materna has come of age. The emphasis has moved away from a mix of play and "maternal" assistance, to a "more 'educational' organisation of experience", in the words of Maria Carmela Angela, an educational psychologist, researcher and former nursery teacher.
Six areas of experience are identified in the orientamenti: the body and movement; speech and words; space, order and measurement; things, time and nature; messages, forms and media; and self and others, around which the teacher should programme class activities. "The risk here," says Sigra Angela "is that if we go down a path of 'activity corners', which in turn are reclassified as 'educational fields', we will end up subject teaching which is not the aim of the scuola materna. The real objective is to help children to learn to learn."
But Sigra Angela thinks the new guidelines are an important step forward. Most nursery teachers would probably agree with her.
Over the past three years the education ministry has run a large-scale re-training programme to help implement the changed approach; around 50 per cent of teachers have been involved.
And in the low-status, rigidly hierarchical profession of teaching, the nursery teacher's star seems to be rising. Twenty-five years ago, teachers commonly worked a 42-hour week. This has now dropped to 25 hours, comparable to a primary teacher's timetable. The old figure of the nursery assistant has disappeared, and each class now has two qualified teachers who work in tandem for the core part of the day, giving a teacher:pupil ratio of around 1:10.