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The following OECD assessment and recommendations summarise chapter 4 of the Economic Survey of Italy published on 17 June 2009.
Compulsory education is less effective than in most countries, but reliable performance information is scarce
Compulsory school education in Italy produces poor results at secondary school level, despite a relatively high level of expenditure, although international comparisons of children in primary education often show a better performance in Italy. It also shows, according to the OECD PISA results, large differences in pupils’ performance between regions, which may reflect socio-economic conditions rather than regional differences in school efficiency. These regional differences in performance do not appear in most national assessments of school or pupil performance, notably the examinations at the end of lower and upper secondary school. Either the national examinations assess very different aspects of achievement from PISA, or the national assessment system is not applied uniformly. The national school assessment agency, INVALSI, was set up to overcome this information deficiency, but in its early years failed to establish a reliable system of testing that had the support and understanding of teachers. INVALSI needs to be strengthened, both in terms of financial and human resources, so as to provide nationally comparable, independent information on pupil and school performance and specific support to school leaders for them to understand how to improve. In parallel, uniform national testing of educational attainment of pupils at key points in their school career is needed. In both cases, it will be necessary to ensure that results in individual schools are fully comparable with those in other parts of the country, which will require strong external controls on the administration and marking of exam results.
INVALSI assessments are currently planned to be undertaken only for a sample of pupils in every school. However, there is no legal obligation for the school to take part in the assessment and therefore participation is voluntary. It is important to avoid assessment fatigue, but standardised INVALSI assessments would probably be more useful if carried out at all schools, perhaps at fewer grade levels than currently envisaged. This would require legislation to make participation in assessment compulsory for every single school. Full information on the results of the INVALSI assessments, as well as on the national examinations, should be available to schools and individual teachers, building on INVALSI’s recent experience in disseminating information from national examinations at the end of lower secondary education.
To improve standards, accountability is needed…
In parallel with the lack of objective information on standards, there is a lack of accountability at many levels and there is little attention paid to performance. While the national curriculum defines what should be taught in schools, there are no consequences for either teachers or schools attached to the degree of success in meeting the objectives. The current system is rather centralised, giving schools very little autonomy, but the centre does not intervene either to improve performance in poor schools. Notably, teacher recruitment and allocation to schools is also managed on a centralised basis, and is often unrelated to schools’ needs or teachers’ abilities. School principals themselves have no formal part in recruitment decisions to their schools. Under the plans for developing fiscal federalism, yet to be finalised, it is planned to increase responsibility for managing education at regional levels.
Figure 2. Italian schools have relatively little autonomy and accountability
Source: Gonand F., Joumard I. and R. Price (2007), “Public Spending Efficiency: Institutional Indicators in Primary and Secondary Education”, OECD Economics Department Working Paper No. 543.
… focusing incentives on results…
The availability of performance information at school level should in itself generate better performance, since conscientious teachers and principals are likely to be motivated to make improvements themselves. However, in a system where currently it is possible for teachers to do rather little with no consequences for their career, information on performance should be supplemented by increased accountability for results. Accountability means ensuring that decision makers are responsible for the consequences of decisions, for example by making school principals responsible for recruitment but also making their career dependent on school performance. Publication of aggregate school results, provided they are presented in “value-added” form (adjusted to take account of factors external to the school that can influence pupils’ achievement) that can be understood by the wider public can also add a legitimate form of accountability to families. Whether or not results are published, the information they provide should be used to identify the worst-performing schools so that specific programmes can be put into place for them; provision for such action on failing schools should be made whatever the degree of local or school autonomy that is finally chosen. This is not only to improve equity but also because better performance in the worst schools can be one of the best ways to raise the overall performance of the system.
…and effective training and recruitment
The system of teacher training, recruitment and allocation of teachers to schools should be reformed to take better account of pedagogical skills and individual schools’ needs. The draft law in Parliament for reforming teacher initial training and career is a good start in principle, especially its emphasis on pedagogical skills and teaching practice, though progress on finalising it is slow. It remains to be seen whether the system improves on the now abandoned system of specialised teacher training institutes that was set up a few years ago. The new training system should feed a recruitment system which is based on school needs and which takes into account the skills and performance of teachers rather than their seniority. Plans to introduce a more developed career structure for teachers should be pursued, but they must serve to improve accountability, with promotion being based on abilities and performance. It would be desirable to use the new training system to introduce voluntary re-certification, linked with career advancement, for existing teachers.
Social segregation, and its consequences, could be reduced
The influence of social background on pupil performance within individual schools is smaller than average in OECD countries. However, because of social segregation due to family choices among the different types of upper secondary school, there is a wide variation of results between schools. Children of parents with lower socioeconomic status disproportionately end up in the vocationally oriented schools, which are those which tend to deliver poor results when measured by PISA standards. Analysis of PISA results shows that systems which separate children too early into vocational and non-vocational streams tend to have worse overall performance. This could be improved in Italy by requiring greater uniformity in at least the first two (out of five) years of upper-secondary school, notably to increase the importance of general education in the vocationally-oriented schools. In all schools reinforced attention to weaker pupils is required, and the provision of early education and care for socially disadvantaged groups should also be reinforced.
Expenditure cuts can increase efficiency, but must be planned with care
OECD analysis concurs with the conclusions of the previous government’s white paper and this government’s conclusion that it should be possible to achieve equally good results with lower teacher numbers. But this does not mean that, in practice, rapid cuts in expenditure and teacher numbers can be achieved with no negative impact on outcomes. The government’s first target in cutting excessive teacher numbers was correctly focused on primary school, where the pupil teacher ratio is exceptionally low. But even at this level, and certainly in secondary school, measures to cut expenditure should go strictly along with mechanisms to encourage better performance.
How to obtain this publication
The complete edition of the Economic Survey of Italy is available from:
The Policy Brief (pdf format) can be downloaded in English. It contains the OECD assessment and recommendations.
For further information please contact the Italy Desk at the OECD Economics Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The OECD Secretariat's report was prepared by Paul O’Brien, Romina Boarini and Enrico Sette under the supervision of Patrick Lenain. Research assistance was provided by Annette Panzera.