View from here - Same old sorry tale of nepotism

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Camilla Addey on how the rich-poor divide persists in Italian schools

Just over 40 years ago, a group of eight pupils at a village school in Tuscany wrote a book that fiercely attacked the Italian education system. The book, Lettera a una Professoressa (Letter to a Teacher), was written with encouragement from their teacher, Lorenzo Milani. It was soon translated into several languages and became an international success.

One major accusation in the book, published in 1967, was that the children of the rich received very different educational experiences from those of the poor. Indeed, the education system only enhanced the gap between pupils from rich families (personified by a child called Pierino) and those from deprived backgrounds (represented by a character called Gianni). One pupil summed it up thus: "Your school is a hospital that cures the healthy and rejects the sick!"

Often, the students said, the children of the poor were advised in a kindly way to stay at home and not waste time trying to get an education: "Two of the missing pupils never came back to school. They are at work in the fields. In everything we eat now, there is a bit of their illiterate sweat."

In the decades since the book was published, I fear too little here has changed.

I attended Italian primary and secondary schools in the 1990s. As the only foreigner, all the students knew my name and called me "the English girl". My parents had moved to a small village in Umbria in the 1970s. They home-educated me until the age of 10, when I started to attend the local school.

The first lesson with each teacher was always the same. The teacher would call out our names one by one. At each well-known surname, the teacher would stop and try to link the student to their family. "Are you the son of ...? Oh, well that means we are relatives. Come here niece, let me give you a kiss!" Or else: "Are you Baldo's daughter? Well give him my love." The teacher would carry on until he had understood who we all were. (When they got to my surname, they would simply express astonishment: "Addey? Where are you from?")

From then on, all the students who were related to the teacher, or were children of an important local person (the Pierinos) would get a very different kind of attention. Sometimes this meant being released from homework, yet still receiving As. We pupils just thought this was normal.

Aged 19, I was an English language teacher in a private school. There, too, I would hear a colleague who taught Italian talking about giving a pupil an A because his father was a company director, and another a C as his parents were just "normal employees". "Once I even had a student whose father was full of tattoos and piercings," she said. "I couldn't give his daughter more than a D."

Conducting research since then on the subject of reading, I have realised that if I had not grown up in a family of readers, I would never have become one. To this day, the Italian school system fails to help children from families with low levels of education, and continues to enlarge the gaps between the Giannis and Pierinos.

Camilla Addey is the author of 'Readers and Non Readers'.

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