While British teachers face increasing pressure to revert to traditional teaching styles and concentrate on the three Rs, several hundred miles away in Cannobio on Lake Maggiore, primary headteacher Maura Carmagnola is grappling with problems of a different kind. With 25 small country schools to oversee, she isn't short of things to do, but persuading her staff to return to the basics is not one of them.
"The days when primary schools confined themselves to the three R's are gone - and a good thing too," explains a booklet for parents issued by the Italian Ministry for Education. "To be adequately prepared for the world of work, today's children need a whole range of new skills. Above all, they must be capable of adapting quickly to the ever-changing needs of modern society. "
It continues in the same vein -32 pages in all, explaining the thinking behind recent reforms. Education is seen as a partnership of the whole community; its ultimate aim is not only to impart specific cognitive skills, but also to develop tolerant, open-minded, well-rounded citizens with an acute sense of social responsibility.
Scuole elementare cover the five years from six to eleven, although most children spend several years at nursery school. The new legislation stipulates an integrated teaching approach for the first two years, followed by a gradual move towards subject specialisation. The revised curriculum covers science, social studies, Italian, maths, and humanities and, as greater importance is now given to creativity and self- expression, PE, music and art figure more prominently than before. A foreign language should also be taught from eight.
To cater for the demands made by a wider-ranging curriculum, the school week has been extended to 27 hours (30 when it includes a foreign language which happens in 50 per cent of schools).
But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the reforms has been the restructuring of classroom organisation into a system called moduli. Gone are the days when the isolated teacher was mistress of her own domain. Staff now work in teams of three teachers to every two classes, or occasionally four to every three.
"Although each member of the team specialises in specific subject areas, they are all expected to co-operate closely," explains Maura Carmagnola. "The content of the curriculum is defined at national level, but it's up to us to decide how to deliver it. Planning is therefore crucial, and teams meet regularly to establish cross-curricular links, discuss programmes of work and evaluate the effectiveness of teaching strategies.
As one of the aims of the reforms is to encourage creativity, stimulate children's minds and heighten their critical powers, this has significant implications for methodology. "We encourage them to think for themselves, " says Signora Carmagnola. "In maths, for example, they are required to investigate and analyse problems, seek solutions, draw their own conclusions. The same principle applies to Italian. When a pupil makes a spelling mistake, the teacher draws attention to it by marking it with a small dot, but it's the child's responsibility to establish what was wrong andcorrect it."
Language work covers much more than syntax and spelling; it includes language awareness and sensitivity to different registers, plus a wide range of other forms of expression such as images, body movement and mimicry. Teaching from the front is a thing of the past.
"Group work encourages initiative, independence and personal responsibility, " says the ministry booklet. This approach, often criticised in Britain, may have its drawbacks in classes of 30 or more. But Italian teachers never have to face such numbers. Since the maximum class size is 25 (only 20 if the class includes children with special needs), teaching groups are small. Mixed-ability teaching becomes a viable proposition; struggling pupils can be given support.
Back in the Eighties, the government took advantage of a 31.3 per cent fall in primary school enrolment to improve the pupil-teacher ratio. As the new system has gained momentum, the number of teachers has increased. There is a move to reduce costs by phasing out uneconomic classes in rural areas and raising the minimum class size to 20, but the maximum of 25 remains.
Signora Carmagnola's cluster of schools has been involved from the start. She feels fortunate to have enthusiastic staff committed to making the new system work. She is very concerned, however, that this is not always the case. "The quality of teaching is inconsistent," she says. "I would favour the introduction of an objective system of teacher evaluation to reward those who work hard and demand higher standards from those who don't."
She is more than happy with the way pupils are assessed: a report issued at regular intervals and based on discussions with colleagues following guidelines laid down by the ministry. Children's achievements are evaluated in the context of their academic potential, willingness to learn, social development and general level of maturity, all of which she considers to be extremely important.
Does this mean she would oppose anything resembling key stage tests? "Definitely. Children are individuals - they learn at different rates and have different needs. You can't fit them into neat little categories arbitrarily imposed. It's undemocratic."