The system in Italy is rigorously non-selective. Classes are unstreamed, and are more likely than not to have children with learning difficulties. These can include the quite severely handicapped.
When classes are formed initially (for example, at the start of the scuola media at age 11) the school will try to distribute difficult cases evenly across the year to avoid the formation of ghetto classes. Most teachers will then have to establish a series of year objectives, tailored to the different abilities within the class - including producing different test materials for use within the same class.
Relatively small class sizes, and an army of 20,000 special needs teachers redeployed from subject teaching, make the class teacher's job easier - although drastic cuts programmed in the budget currently working its way through parliament would bring teacher pupils ratios closer to those in Britain.
The spirit of egalitarianism has been a feature of the system since the late Sixties, and has often been blamed, possibly unfairly, as the source of all ills. One highly visibly result is that the public exams held at age 11 (licenza elementare), 14 (licenza media) and 19 (maturita) no longer have any discriminatory effect - everyone passes, or almost everyone.
Even in the scuola superiore (14-19), the pass rate of the maturita is consistently above 95 per cent, making the exam just a formality. So, in effect, there is no selection at intake, and very little at the end.
Within classes, however, schools may organise groupwork according to level, if this is approved by the governing body. For example, a scuola media with a limited number of computers might need to form groups for information technology lessons; the groups could be organised according to aptitude or ability.
At age 14 comes a moment of choice, but not selection. A wide range of scuole superiori are available from the academic licei to the vocationally orientated instituti professionali. But although guidance from within the system has qualitatively improved in recent years, and 90 per cent of the school population continues after 14, the choice is still invariably made within the family.
It is the same story at university level - with disastrous consequences. Anyone with a maturita certificate can enrol at any university to read any subject, making Italian universities the most crowded in Europe, with a drop-out rate of 70 per cent.
Recent half-hearted attempts by the universities to introduce a selective intake through aptitude tests have led to a wave of court cases this autumn, with the courts invariably pronouncing on the illegality of selection.
New legislation is urgently needed, but minister Luigi Berlinguer has already backtracked on a proposal, after student protests.