Village embraces ethnic diversity

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Head goes against local political opinion with inclusion, David Newbold reports.

ITALY. Rachad arrived from Morocco two years ago. He supports Milan ("of course") and wants to be an electrician, like his father.

Manpreet is a Punjabi Sikh, who followed her lorry-driver father here five years ago. Her ambition is rather different - she wants to become president of India. Adama, from Senegal, is the shyest. At 11, he is the youngest in the group, and he has got a baby sister at home to think about. He likes looking after her, he says.

The most self-assured is Nadia, from Bosnia. But she has been here the longest - nine years. She has only one criticism to make about the school, which is that all the good-looking boys left last year.

The four are all pupils at the Istituto Comprensivo Fogazzaro in Follina, a combined primary and middle school in north-east Italy. It is one of the most multi-ethnic schools in the country ("if not the most," says headteacher Gianni Busolini).

More than a quarter of pupils are foreign and they come from 23 countries.

There are now 420,000 immigrants in Italian schools, a 20 per cent rise since last year. The number may still be small - 4 per cent of the total school population - compared with other countries in Europe, but it is growing rapidly, bringing new problems and challenges for teachers.

But there are two striking differences from immigration patterns in countries like Britain and France, historically linked to specific countries by a colonial past. The first is the range of countries of origin: Albania, the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Romania, North Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, China and South America. The second is the kind of place families end up in, like Follina.

Big towns such as Rome, Milan and Genova have their fair share of Third World immigrants. But work is often easier to find in semi-rural areas, where a sudden growth in light industry and family-run businesses provided the driving force behind the economic boom of the 1970s.

Places like Follina, a pretty village of 3,000 inhabitants in the foothills of the Dolomites, is known for its 14th-century abbey, and a history in the wool trade. Today there are furniture factories and a textile industry (this is Benetton country) where there are still jobs for people moving in.

Housing is relatively easy to find.

When it comes to community relations, the school is in the frontline. "On the whole, we've only had small problems," says Mr Busolini. "I can count the number of local parents who have withdrawn children to send them to a private school on one hand."

Francesca, a 12-year-old pupil, confirms this. She says one of her best friends is Albanian, but adds that she knows of parents who tell their children to keep away from foreigners. These parents could be sympathisers of the Lega Nord, the right-wing party which administers the three boroughs making up the school's catchment area. It wants foreign children to be taught in separate classes.

"That's not how we do it," says Mr Busolini. "Our classes are mixed." New arrivals, however, are withdrawn from some lessons for help with learning Italian. Last year the school got an extra e6,700 (pound;4,550) for this "which paid some of the overtime for teachers".

Language is the main problem, since success at school depends on knowing Italian. "This is a sore point," Mr Busolini says, "since up to a quarter of foreign children have to repeat the year, often because of language problems, whereas the percentage is much smaller for Italian children."

But he insists that inclusion into mainstream education is right. "I'm a great believer in the constitution, which says that everyone is equal and has equal dignity."

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