Influx of immigrant students forces headteachers to limit number per class despite education minister's concerns about racism. David Newbold reports.
A wave of new pupils from developing countries is forcing headteachers to limit the numbers of foreign students in classes, despite the education ministry's reluctance to endorse the measures.
The situation is particularly serious in the industrial north. In Milan, Turin and Genoa more than 10 per cent of pupils are foreign. In some schools percentages are much higher. In Brescia, near Milan, where there are classes with 70 per cent non-Italians, the local education director has drawn up a plan with headteachers to limit the number of immigrants per class, and to distribute them evenly across the province. "This is not racism," he explains, "but a need to organise teaching effectively."
Pupils come from all over the world - Albania, Morocco, Romania and China head the list, with African countries and the Indian subcontinent following closely. The new arrivals speak little or no Italian, so many teachers have to communicate with gestures.
There is no nationwide strategy for meeting pupils' linguistic and other needs. In some cases supernumerary teachers, a "cultural mediator" recruited from the immigrant community, or a young graduate with some knowledge of pupils' mother tongues are able to help out.
But for most pupils there is little support. The experience is particularly hard in the scuola media (middle school), where they may have to repeat the year if they do not integrate quickly.
Schools in other areas, including Liguria (north west) and Veneto (north east) have shown interest in the Brescia initiative.
But education minister Letizia Moratti is wary. "State schools must integrate, not discriminate," she said in a radio interview.
To tackle the problem she has set up an "office for the integration of immigrant students" and summoned a conference of regional education directors.
On the minister's agenda are providing Italian language courses for children, and identifying examples of best practice in schools which have succeeded with their immigrant pupils. The overall number of immigrant pupils in Italy is still small by western European standards - around 300,000, or 3.5 per cent of the total. But it is increasing rapidly, with the change in patterns of immigration, as wives and children join migrant workers who have obtained residential permits.
This year the rise in the number of enrolments has caught schools unprepared. And the trend looks set to continue - in Brescia 30 per cent of births are to immigrant families.