Diane Hofkins on English inspectors' learning experience in Tuscany. Curriculum reform has been far less stressful for teachers in Italy than for those in Britain, with schools allowed more discretion and flexibility, a report from the Office for Standards in Education shows.
Primary education Italian style has "no national or local testing arrangements, no school performance tables; and no arrangements for the regular inspection of schools," say HM inspectors in their report on a visit to primary schools in Tuscany last March.
"Overall, there is an absence of information about standards and quality to enable policy-makers, administrators and parents to make judgements either of the performance of the system over time or of the performance of different schools, regions or provinces."
But they continue: "There is, however, direct accountability to parents. " This takes a variety of forms, including a parental complaints system, regular reporting of pupils' progress, and, "very significantly, parental representation on school committees" - in particular inter-class committees, which include one parent from each class, and committees of school consortia. From September 1994, pupils are being assessed by teachers every two months in eight subject areas: Italian, a modern foreign language, mathematics, science, historygeographysocial studies, art, music and PE. Results, graded A to E, will be recorded on a standard form, along with more general comments. "These procedures are comprehensive and, although probably time-consuming, seem manageable within existing staffing arrangements," say the HMIs.
But accountability in Italian primary schools is two-way. The inspectors, who visited eight schools and studied Italian national data, say the significant role of parents came across forcefully. The family is seen as the child's main centre of education, and there are strong links between school and home, but with a clear division of responsibilities.
The school has sole responsibility for teaching but parents commit themselves to supporting the learning process to ensure progress.
The report also shows that the Italian primary teacher's task is made easier by small class sizes, whole-class teaching, an emphasis on textbooks, support from subject specialists and no requirement to differentiate work for the varying abilities of children.
"The strengths and weakness of whole-class teaching are very evident in Italian schools," says the report. "Where teaching is unsatisfactory, the more able pupils are not sufficiently challenged; the less able do not receive work matched to their abilities; and the pace of the lessons is slow, sometimes painfully so, judging from the expressions on children's faces! Where it is good, pupils are given a careful introduction to the ideas, knowledge and skills in particular subjects; teachers instruct, explain, describe and question clearly and appropriately; and the work is challenging."
They add that class teaching is often particularly successful in developing pupils' listening and speaking skills. "As a result of highly interactive teaching styles, pupils are encouraged by teachers to respond to questions by giving detailed, extended responses."
However, inspectors were unable on the basis of the small sample of schools to judge whether Italian primary education provides a better grounding in the basics than the English system.
Aspects of primary education in Italy, HMSO, Pounds 4.75.