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Thrilling path to Italian job

I recently visited my son doing geology fieldwork in the Ligurian Alps. The area is not far off the beaten track; halfway from Genoa to Pisa, turn off the autostrada and head inland. Nevertheless, it feels rugged and remote.

Medieval towns huddle in the valleys. The loudest noise as the sun sinks is the bong of goat-bells from canyon walls where the sensible beasts graze to keep safe from wolves.

When I got back I read Ripe for the Picking by Annie Hawes (Penguin Books, London, 2003). Hawes has led a simple but satisfying life in Liguria for 20 years. She tells an engaging tale about her Italian lover's niece, Annetta, who is taking national exams in Rome.

In preparation for the ordeal Annetta buys cheat-sheets which are both authoritative and conveniently printed in long, narrow strips. All the well-prepared Italian candidate has to do is further fold them, concertina-style, find token concealment in their clothing and copy out the appropriate sample answers in the examination.

Apparently such sheets are widely available in university bookshops. With hundreds or even thousands of candidates taking exams in ancient pillared halls, with few invigilators, there is little risk of being caught.

Fly Italian Annetta pities disapproving English Annie for having grown up in a country of "cold-hearted moralists happy to betray their friends, colleagues or their own students" rather than cosily, humanly, cheat.

It is worth reminding ourselves here that we are not considering some primitive banana republic but the country of Galileo, da Vinci and Dante.

The land area of Italy is much the same as that of the United Kingdom, but with scarcer natural resources. The population is much the same. Gross domestic product is much the same but the proportion earned from manufacturing industry is substantially greater. Agricultural Liguria aside for a moment, Italy is a powerhouse of chemicals, vehicles, machine-tools, ceramics, textiles, clothes. It is a by-word for good design and chic.

Italians tell us there are two kinds of people in the world, Italians and those who wish they were Italians - and we believe them.

All this is not to say that cheating in exams is just one more symptom of the creativity that brings Italy success. But it is to say that those who argue that the world will not totter on its axis if English children taken one or two fewer national tests, may just have a point.

Former Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chairman Bill Stubbs rightly warns that there is a price attached to a more relaxed attitude to exams.

That price is longer undergraduate degree courses.

While England's three-year standard is regarded as niggardly even in other parts of these islands, Italy's high drop-out rate and five or seven-year university courses are equally unsatisfactory and may even be the direct result of Annetta's cheat-sheets. We all reap what we sow; we just choose to reap and sow in different ways.

But of course, higher education is not the only desirable outcome of schooling. The Government's 50-per-cent target for participation in higher education is routinely misunderstood by those who skip over the words "between the ages of 18 and 30". Much, if not most, higher education in England is likely to be work-related and taken by employed people close to home. In other words, a good deal of higher education will be another step on the vocational ladder, a ladder on which the other 50 per cent of people have paused lower down.

No, what the story of Annetta may have to tell us is that teaching is rather more important than examining. What is truly impressive about Italian secondary education is the quality of its technical high schools.

From the age of 14 you can opt for a vocational programme which is not just more exciting than that of commercial or academic high schools, but also much more costly to provide. "Parity of esteem" does not matter when you can choose an aeronautical high school where 18-year-olds leave with a certificate but also a pilot's licence.

How much more motivated are Italy's "Kevins" likely to be to learn English when, to get that pilot's licence, they must learn the international language of the air? How much more engaging is mathematics when it is linked to the mastery of the innards of the school's aircraft?

If we want people to be able to do things as well as be waiters or stock-jobbers, we need technically able people to teach them. We need to spend our money on modern machinery in schools, not just computers. We need to rekindle in Birmingham, the boast of Bologna: "We have a technical culture."

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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