Today I have returned to my school after spending a week on the beautiful island of Sicily, off the southernmost point of mainland Italy. This was not part of an extended Easter Holiday- I, ironically, spent most of this doing school work and driving my son to various sporting events! It was a visit as part of our Erasmus+ project for Raising Achievement in Migrant Pupils. The project has lasted for 2 years and we have formed a partnership with schools in Catalonia and Sicily (locations for mass immigration over the past few years).
Through the project, teachers from each school visit the other countries and see how they help their migrant pupils at school and local council levels. Whilst visiting, we can meet the pupils and their parents, spend time in the schools to see what they do and talk with school leaders about the impact and problems their projects have.
Spending time in other schools is one of the most valuable things I get to do as a leader. It allows you to open your mind to new ideas, as they are demonstrated in concrete style before your eyes. It also allows you to reflect on practices in your own setting and challenge any preconceptions about how good or bad things really are.
My time in Sicily was fascinating and I learned a great deal. The Italian education system could be likened to school here in the 1950s. At primary level, everything is based around workbooks, which the children complete. There appeared to be very little differentiation, with children who were more able simply left to kill time when the page in the book had been completed. Vast amounts of time were wasted with children sitting in rooms with nothing to do. This was particularly evident at lunchtime, when the famed European 2 hour lunch break was shown to me in its stark reality. The children all sat and ate a massive meal, using knives and forks to various levels of competence. Once the meal was finished, they were then left to just sit. Sicilian children are no different to ours. They began to get louder, fiddled with the utensils, tore small pieces from the paper table cloths and flicked them at each other. Some got up and wandered and one or two even began to play tag around their tables. Teachers mostly ignored this behaviour- busy eating their own lunch and conversing with their colleagues. Occasionally, a teacher would address a wandering child and get them to sit again. This wasn’t cultural development of any sort. This was simply child-minding, and not very good child-minding. What these children needed to do, was to go out and run around! With lunch finishing at 2.30pm, there would be 30 minutes left in the day until the bus came to collect the children. Now I ask you- given 20, 8 year old children in a classroom for 30 minutes, what would you do? A whole range of ideas immediately spring to mind, I’m sure. Read a story, play some word games, discuss the news. The list goes on. In Sicily, they just waited- no interaction from the teacher. Nothing.
Now I don’t write this to simply damn the Italian education system. After all, they are doing something right. I met many bright and able 15 year olds, who will be great university students. I also witnessed amazing musical talents from very young children, who could all play from notation. I write this because my time in Sicily showed me two things:
- Educational change will only happen if there is a great enough level of dissatisfaction with the current position to overcome the effort that will be needed to make the change. In Italy, reading is recognised as an issue. Italy sit 34th in the world for Reading on the PISA tables. However, there were no reading books in any of the schools I visited. No Diary of a Wimpy Kids, no Barry Losers, no Harry Potters or even their Italian counterparts. Teachers did not hear children read. The class did not enjoy a class story and discuss what might happen next. Children did not even bring their own reading books to school- weighed down by a hundred work books, there probably wasn’t room in their back packs! Whilst the children may be able to read, there was no love of reading. The system hasn’t ever changed. Italian parents are not dissatisfied as this was the education they had. Teachers are not dissatisfied as they generally worked 16-18 hours per week and would not be prepared to do any more than that. And then there was the head teacher. She was a passionate and dedicated leader. She knew that reading was a problem. She was dissatisfied. This leads me to my 2nd realisation.
- Leaders can only implement change if they have the power to do so. Power can be influence over others, it can be money, it can be the voice you have to be heard by the crowd. My Italian counterpart had none of these. Her staff were appointed by the state- they worked their hours and no more. They would baulk at any suggestion of doing anything above and beyond. The school had no money. Tax in Italy is 27% from the first Euro you earn for the basic rate payers and 52% for higher earners, but the cash was obviously not spent on school buildings or resources. The opulence of the Mayor’s office was jaw-dropping when one had just left a classroom with no books and broken tables. Finally she had no voice. Any idea she had must first be accepted by the Mayor’s office. No freedom to experiment, no innovations encouraged.
My time in Sicily taught me a lot, but it mostly taught me to be grateful for the freedom I have as an educator to do the best for our children. Oh and it also taught me to eat more Italian food- it really is delicious!