‘Educational crisis’: Italy’s schools compare badly with the rest of Europe, study finds

Italian schools have ranked poorly again in a prestigious international study, leading to claims that the country is suffering from "educational poverty".

'Educational crisis': Italy's schools compare badly with the rest of Europe, study finds
Photo: AFP

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published its highly anticipated PISA report for 2018 on Tuesday, comparing the abilities of 15-year-olds from 79 countries.

It was bad news for Italian schools once again, as Italian students were found to perform below the OECD average in all three key subject areas of reading comprehension, mathematics and science.

READ ALSO: Why are Italians the 'worst at speaking English in Europe'?

Italian 15-year-olds received a mean score of 476 in reading comprehension, compared to an OECD average of 487, and 468 in science (average: 489).

Things were better in mathematics: Italian students scored 487, coming just under the OECD average of 489.

What are the main problems?

The most problematic area for Italian students was reading comprehension, the study found.

One of the most worrying findings was that only one in 20 Italian 15 year olds is able to distinguish fact from opinion when reading a text on an unfamiliar topic.

And one in four has difficulty with basic reading comprehension, failing to identify the main idea within a medium-length text.

Things have worsened in the last decade, as the country has dropped ten points when it comes to reading skills since 2009.

The report reveals that Italy is “a country that isn't thinking about the future,” according to Michela Montevecchi, Vice-President of the Education Commission, reports La Repubblica.

“We are losing critical capacity, but our society isn't dealing with it. Our children are less and less able to analyse the complex situations that they will find themselves facing,” she stated.

Giuseppe Massafra, head of CGIL, Italy's teaching union, stated that “the report confirms educational poverty is a national emergency.”

How did Italy compare with other countries?

Most countries in Europe had higher average test scores than Italy, the study found.

In the three areas examined, average scores in Italy were lower than in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In reading comprehension, Italy ranked alongside Switzerland, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania, Iceland and Israel.

Italy's score was similar to that of Portugal and Spain in mathematics, but lower than these two countries in science.

There were marked differences within Italy itself, with schools in the north performing better overall, (average score in the north west: 498, north east: 501), while their peers in southern areas and on Italy's islands are struggling the most, scoring 453 and 439 respectively.

And the study notes that “compared to 15-year-old students in other OECD countries, students in Italy missed out on a greater amount of learning time due to absences and indiscipline in class.”

The effect of social inequality

Italian schools are not helping to address social inequalities, the study noted, as it found most schools were attended by students from the same socio-economic and cultural background.

The study also found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds found it more difficult to imagine attaining a university degree.

Only six out of ten “excellent” students from a “socio-economically disadvantaged background” said they were aiming to get a university degree, compared with nine out of ten of their peers from more privileged backgrounds..

Gender stereotypes don't seem to be changing, either: among students with the best results in mathematics and science, girls were half as likely as boys to imagine themselves having careers as scientists or engineers by the age of 30.

Charity Save the Children commented that the study's findings were a “brutal snapshot of educational poverty in Italy,” La Repubblica reports, saying the report “highlights the crisis in the education system and the inability of the school system to counter and overcome educational inequalities.”

What exactly is the PISA study?

The PISA study is the largest international comparative school performance study, which assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students worldwide have acquired the knowledge and skills essential for their future participation in society.

This time around 600,000 pupils from 79 countries took part.

Since 2000, hundreds of thousands of students aged 15 have been tested every three years in the fields of mathematics, reading and the natural sciences.

This year the main focus was on reading competence. The tests are now carried out primarily on computers, with pupils having to complete various tasks.

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Back to school in Italy: how much will it cost, and how can you save money?

With Italy’s schools reopening in September, parents are beginning the annual rush to stock up on essential supplies. New figures reveal families will have to shell out more this year.

Back to school in Italy: how much will it cost, and how can you save money?

As the last families return to their homes at the tail-end of the so-called grande rientro, Italian pupils are preparing to file back into the classroom for the start of the 2022/2023 school year. 

For those who aren’t too familiar with the Italian education system, all public schools are managed by regional authorities, meaning return dates generally vary by region.

READ ALSO: Explained: What are Italy’s Covid rules for schools in September?

For instance, this time around, back-to-school dates will range from September 5th to September 19th, with children from Trentino-Alto Adige being the first back in front of the blackboard. (See all the dates here).

Regardless of the dates pupils are expected back at their desks, the purchase of school supplies and textbooks is going to deal many Italian families a harder economic blow this year.

According to estimates from Italian consumer association Codacons, the prices of regular school supplies (backpacks, notebooks, pencil cases, stationery, etc.) have increased by as much as seven percent compared to last year. 

Prices, Codacons explains, have been mainly driven up by “greater energy costs for manufacturers” and “higher transportation fees” associated with the European fuel crisis. 

Students outside the Italo Calvino Institute in Turin, Italy.

Backpacks are the most expensive item in the back-to-school shopping list, with some branded articles going for as much as 200 euros. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

So how much should Italian families prepare to shell out?

According to Codacons, expenses for school supplies alone might add up to a whopping 588 euros per student

As usual, the most expensive item on the back-to-school list is the backpack, with some brand-name articles currently going for as much as 200 euros.

READ ALSO: Why Italians have a hard time learning English – and how things could improve

Significant expenses are also required for pencil cases or pouches (branded items may go for as much as 60 euros) and school diaries (around 30 euros for the most sought-after brands). 

On top of the above-mentioned school supplies (corredo scolastico in Italian), families will also have to pay for textbooks. 

While elementary school textbooks are supplied free of charge across the entire country, costs for middle school (scuola media) or high school (scuola superiore) textbooks generally fall between 300 and 600 euros, with prices largely varying according to the year and school children happen to be in. 

All in all then, Codacons estimates that the purchase of school supplies, textbooks and technical items (set triangles, compasses, goniometers, etc.) might set Italian families back as much as 1,300 euros per student this time around. 

However, as the prospect of this year’s back-to-school stangata (financial blow) gives rise to some much-justified concern among parents, Codacons and other consumer groups such as Altroconsumo and Tuttoscuola have already provided families with some useful advice on how to save up on both supplies and textbooks.

How to save money on school supplies

  • Avoid branded items. Children are easily influenced by TV and/or online ads and might push to get the most popular and fashionable articles on the market. However, off-brand items generally have the same features and durability as their more well-known counterparts and might go for 40 percent less.
  • Buy from a local supermarket rather than a stationery shop. At this time of the year, many supermarket chains offer very favourable deals on school kits, with prices being sometimes 30 percent lower than in specialist shops.
  • Don’t buy everything at once. Any item that is not immediately necessary can be bought at a later stage.
  • Wait for teachers’ guidelines, especially when it comes to buying material for art or geometry classes. Knowing exactly what items are required will save you from spending money on wrong or unnecessary articles.

A student completing a written test.

Italian consumer groups have advised families to avoid branded items when it comes to purchasing school supplies. Photo by Olivier CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

How to save money on textbooks

  • Buy second-hand textbooks. Purchasing libri usati might allow you to save up to 50 percent on school books. However, it’s usually best to check the state of the items – especially their exercise pages – prior to buying. Also, keep in mind that past editions might no longer be accepted.
  • Loan textbooks directly from the school. Not all institutes do this but some allow for various forms of comodato d’uso whereby families can loan textbooks for the entire length of the school year and then return them when classes end in June.
  • Look out for financial incentives. All schools set aside a budget to help low-income families with the purchase of textbooks. Incentives usually come in the forms of vouchers partly covering the price of the required items. Vouchers are allocated on the basis of a household’s economic situation, which in Italy is calculated as ISEE (Equivalent Financial Position Indicator or Indicatore della Situazione Economica Equivalente).
  • Shop online or in supermarkets. Some supermarkets and online marketplaces sell textbooks at favourable prices, with discounts usually ranging between 10 and 20 percent.
  • Buy digital textbooks. Again, not all schools allow this but in some institutes families have the option to buy the required set of textbooks in digital form. Students can then access the books via a pc, tablet or e-reader.