Since their introduction in 2015, high school work experience schemes should be bridging the gap between the worlds of education and labour – a first step for the over 900,000 high school students who, in academic year 2016/17, took part in one of the projects launched by 95% of Italian schools with more than 200 enterprises, non-profit organisations, and so on. However, every law has its loophole, and some students have found themselves employed as free labour. Of course, these are borderline cases, “but what is missing is a clear structure, shared between businesses and schools”, states Elena Ugolini, headmistress of the "Malpighi" High School in Bologna and former Under Secretary of Education under the Monti government.
A flop, then?
Not at all. When these work experience schemes work, it is because teachers, parents and institutions work together to ensure a positive experience for students. The goal is to help them develop their existing skills and acquire new, cross-cutting ones that are useful both at school and in the workplace, such as punctuality, teamwork and personal initiative.
And yet, students have taken to the streets to protest.
There is plenty of ideology behind these protests. Hosting a student in a workplace is a major commitment. It means taking responsibility for his or her training path. Adults who do this invest time and resources. Cases where things don’t go well are one in a thousand. However, in such cases, it is important to intervene promptly, but without criminalising the entire labour market, especially at a time like this. Personally, I felt it was my duty to send a letter of thanks to all the 150 enterprises involved with my high school.
In 2004, you promoted the project entitled “Bologna rifà scuola”, which aimed to bring education and businesses closer together. What did you learn from that experience?
The poster stated: “Education is a collective responsibility.” That includes professionals and entrepreneurs. The key to their engagement came from the idea of sharing: because there is always something to learn from the younger generations. There is a saying where I come from: if you only ever eat soup, you’ll never know how good pasta tastes.
“Hosting a student in a workplace is a major commitment. It means taking responsibility for his or her training path. Cases where things don’t go well are one in a thousand”.
What’s your opinion, therefore, on the Italian education reform?
There are both positive and negative aspects. On the upside, the focus has been put back on the selection of teaching and non-teaching staff. Then, a durable bridge has been built between the worlds of secondary education, higher education and labour. Finally, tax deductions have been introduced for investments in favour of schools. In short, our schools should be by far more beautiful than the houses we live in.
And on the downside?
On the downside, there’s the fact that the reform applies to all those listed in the rankings, without taking into account the actual needs of the institutes.
Yours is one of the schools that has put itself forward to try out a shorter high school education cycle, lasting four years instead of five.
That’s right. And if it is approved by the School Council, it will be an important tool for our students, who leave school and university much later than our European counterparts. The important thing is to strike the right balance between a shorter cycle and high quality education, preserving that critical spirit that the Italian education system has always taught students, and which is very much appreciated abroad and in the workplace. Now, what we have to do is aim for a higher degree of efficiency.