It has been decided: it will no longer be necessary to have participated in a school-work rotation scheme in order to take the end-of-school exams. New changes are underfoot, beginning with a reduction in the huge minimum number of hours required, which differs for professional institutes, technical colleges and licei (more academically-focused secondary schools). Appropriate guidelines are also being reviewed, with the aim of guaranteeing students a high-quality rotation experience. The key feature will be guidance that links it closely to each student’s chosen course of study.
In line with the coalition-agreement, Minister of Education, Marco Bussetti, is working hard on the school-work rotation which, last academic year, involved over 1.5 million students in their final three years of school. The school-work rotation is the result of the latest school reforms (implemented by Italian law 107/2015 – better known as Buona Scuola or “Good Schooling”), which defines it as a teaching method. It means rethinking schooling, moving away from learning based on knowledge and towards a form of learning that is also based on skills and know-how.
On paper, this is crucial for our children’s future. So why get rid of it? Has it gone that badly? Politics aside, is the school-work rotation something we need to rethink, justify or get rid of entirely? We asked Giovanni Biondi, leader of INDIRE, Italy’s national institute for research into education.
The Conte government has decided to change tack in terms of the school-work rotation. In which direction do you think we should head?
I believe the Minister will make changes to the school-work rotation on the basis of what has happened in recent years, on the objectives the schools have found difficult to achieve. Among other things, a change of name would be best.
We need to place more emphasis on the interaction there should be between work and school, that’s its most important feature. Instead, the term “rotation” sounds like Germany’s dual system, where time is set aside for classroom activities and for work at companies. That is not our model, doing one thing and then the other: the German dual system is similar to apprenticeships as the children are paid; the Italian rotation is very different. The idea is to make schools communicate with the world of work, as something of educational value surely lies in this. Establishing communication between schools and the world of work and getting children first-hand experience in the world of work: these two aspects need to stay in place.
Even minister Bussetti has said he is “convinced that the terms “school” and “work” should not be viewed negatively, but as a natural synthesis.” Former Minister of Education, Francesco Profumo, talks about work-school alliances. Is this the direction in which we’re headed?
I agree, school-work alliance is a better name. But the issue remains: it’s not just understanding what the school-work rotation is but actually giving it a meaning.
It would be better to change the name to rotation and place emphasis on the interaction between schools and work, Work-school alliance does a better job of capturing this idea.
INDIRE has been monitoring the quality of the school-work rotation thus far. What have you discovered?
We have uncovered more or less what we expected to. The country’s southern regions don't have the kind of rich business sector structure that would allow it to welcome students, meaning the school-work rotation has become a virtual phenomenon, something the kids do in front of the computer for simulated companies. I have nothing against virtual activities, but going into a business and taking in the atmosphere is a totally different experience. This doesn’t mean there are no great opportunities in the South, that’s not the case. The second thing we've noticed is that in the licei (more academically-focused secondary schools), the rotation has become mandatory but without offering students any added value: the licei haven’t managed to establish the same kinds of relationships with local companies as professional institutes and technical colleges have, so they don’t know where to send their students. Purely to meet a requirement, they send them to the university offices or to act as museum guards… All useful experiences, but the point is that it’s difficult to show how they contribute to students’ education, rather than that a school/museum link isn’t a fruitful one. What I’m trying to say is that, in a broad sense, every experience is worth it – even packaging sandwiches – but not every experience directly links back to the curriculum. So it doesn’t make sense for those experiences to be a school’s responsibility.
So you believe we need to rethink the mandatory nature of the rotation?
This compulsoriness has restricted some schools, in that they offer the scheme to abide by a rule rather than to find opportunities for the students. My suggestion is that schools should instead be able to exercise maximum independence. It should be the school that evaluates whether the conditions are right to create good a rotation scheme and one of the conditions for establishing useful connections is a good level of joint planning. However, joint planning is difficult and places a large burden of admin on schools. We need to get rid of some of the bureaucracy and allow teachers to act independently, not always bound by rules imposed on them from above. Again, it’s important that the schools are the ones making the judgement: if, in a given territory at a given time, the conditions are right to put 50 good rotation schemes in place, why force them to set up 200?
It is the school, acting independently, that should assess whether the conditions are right for a useful rotation. If they can put 50 rotation schemes in place, why set up 200?
But if we believe that school-work rotation is an important opportunity, surely removing the obligation will penalise a large proportion of students…
Let’s look at it from a different angle: what does forcing it achieve? It's often just a waste of time. We all see the positive, enriching value of the rotation, but schools would be the last entity to ever deny students an experience that would help them. If, tomorrow, school-work rotation were made optional, do you think the many truly excellent opportunities would be halted? No, they’d carry on. We would only lose the ones pursued purely out of obligation.
So you’re proposing a rotation that is just “recommended” and no longer mandatory?
Yes, as a recommendation, a suggestion, but not an obligation. Or rather, that the obligation remain but the school may opt out if they can justify it. And then we should get rid of this idea that students need to be given a mark, because without one that subject doesn’t count: this is the kind of 18th-century thinking that leads to us having a curriculum the size of an encyclopaedia and students with heads ready to burst – the opposite of what helps them grown into people with intelligent minds.
If we want to establish an alliance between schools and companies, we need to show we value companies and recognise the investment they are making.
What does the school-work rotation need in addition to this regulatory overhaul?
Above all it needs to grow: it’s still perhaps early days for the scheme. It needs a little time, without being called off, so that schools and companies can come to see the opportunity it presents. If, however, we want there to establish an alliance between schools and companies – as we said at the beginning – we need to show we value companies: small- to medium-sized companies are making an investment when they accept a young person on rotation, providing them a trained mentor. This investment should be recognised with a tax break or something of the sort. Otherwise, only big companies and multinationals will be involved in the rotation initiative and the larger section of our business sector – local businesses – won’t take part.