The obsolescence of the current Italian compulsory education system

Simone Redaelli

Simone Redaelli

Simone is a biologist and scientific copywriter. He is vice-director of Culturico, where his writings cover the intersection between philosophy, poetry, science and society. He is also the author of "A Sonnet to Freud", a blog for Psychology Today to illustrate how the life of poets, novelists, and intellectuals can be an inspiration for individuals to better face their interior and social life.

The Italian compulsory education is based on an antiquated system, which is in urgent need of restructuring and modernization. This article explores its main pitfalls and limitations, with the aim of sharing suitable suggestions to improve teaching and education at school.
The Italian compulsory education system has become fairly old-fashioned and it cannot keep up anymore with several anthropological shifts that Western civilizations have been facing in the last couple of decades.

I will start by introducing how the compulsory education system is currently structured. Then, I will illustrate point-by-point the main pitfalls and disadvantages of this system, trying to suggest new conceptual strategies to overcome them. For certain aspects, comparisons will be made with school systems of other countries.
The main goal of this essay is to share applicable suggestions to improve the quality of the compulsory educational system, especially in Italy.

The structure of the Italian compulsory education

The Italian compulsory education system is divided into three independent educational classes:

  • A primary (or elementary) school, between age 6 and 11 (five years);
  • A middle (or junior high) school, between age 11 and 14 (three years);
  • A secondary (or high) school, between age 15 and 19, or, alternatively, a professional school at least until age 18.

For clarity: in Italy, schooling is mandatory for ten years from age six to sixteen. However, after the age of sixteen, the young student has to continue their educational path up until they are at least eighteen. This can happen by attending secondary school until completion, starting an apprenticeship, or taking professional courses.

The way the schooling system is structured already carries a huge downside. Primary and middle schools, as they are conceived today, have poor reasons to exist. If we have a look at the disciplines offered by these two independent cycles of studies, we notice that students attend mandatory subjects that are identical in primary and middle schools: Italian language; Mathematics; History; English language; Geography; Science; Music; Art; Physical Education; Technology. Later on, we will discuss the reason why such a repetition of teachings is jumbled and impractical.

Let us now walk through the specific details of the aforementioned subjects.

Italian language (or any native language of a given country) and Mathematics are indispensable basic knowledge which all the other teachings rely on in order to be understood. They are the foundations for creative, logical and abstract reasoning, being essential to conceptualize all other disciplines that are usually taught at school.
Thus, the first goal at school should be to get children to love words and numbers. Concerning the former, it does not seem to be the case in Italy. According to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) for 2018 (1), performance in reading has been declining in Italy since 2012, dropping to levels observed in 2003. In comparison to neighbouring countries like France, Germany or Portugal, Italian reading performance is of a lower level. Only around 5% of Italian students achieved top performances, compared to an OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average of 9%. Although performance in mathematics looks less discouraging, among the top performing students still only one male out of four sees himself working as an engineer or a scientist in the future, while only one female out of eight feels the same. Also, around 10% of Italian students were top performers in mathematics, which represent a discouraging result when compared to Asian countries. For these reasons, the very first years of school should be merely dedicated to emotionally engage children with words and numbers.
The remaining time left over by these two disciplines should be filled by art, music and technology. Children would learn how to play an instrument, how to paint and sculpt and how to make sense of computers and other technologies. Exploring creativity is the ground to fight superficial factual knowledge and to understand that culture – as we have already seen for poetry – is an act of re-interpretation of reality and does not simply comprise fixed facts to be memorized as unquestionable messages.

We can now discuss the main issue concerning the current primary/middle school double-system, which in Italy is mainly related to the remaining subjects: History, Geography and Science. Let’s take History as an example. In primary school, the study plan for History usually begins with prehistory and ends with the Second World War. However, in middle school the same study program is proposed again, and something similar happens when students move to high school. Obviously, history taught at primary school is a simplified version for children, which gets articulated in more detail as students enter higher courses of studies. There is also no doubt that repetition of concepts can help to memorize key events that happened in history, and at least allow the students to become familiar with historical progression. Nevertheless, according to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (2), reflective thinking only arises after the eleventh year, when adolescents are capable of making assumptions that are not necessarily related to concrete reality: they can uncouple their thinking from present times, ideate theories and elaborate thoughts which are not bound to their beliefs. Thus, there likely is no reason why disciplines such as History, Geography or Science should be studied before age eleven or twelve.

A system that comprises a primary and a middle school carries other disadvantages. Middle school only lasts three years, during which the study program is tightly condensed, and professors cannot dedicate enough time to deepen their teaching. Further, at the end of five years of primary school, pupils are forced to change their school environment twice in three years: when they move to middle school and, at its completion, when they start high school. While at primary school they had a chance to make friends and to establish strong bonds, they are subsequently forced to turn their life around, meet new, stranger people and adapt to a completely different school environment abruptly. Although it is known that practicing new stimulating activities can enhance cognitive functioning (3), it is also clear that a school move negatively impacts on students’ performances and overall wellbeing (4).

On such basis, a general restructuring of educational classes is needed. A simple and effective solution would be to fuse primary and middle schools, as already is the case in Germany or in the Netherlands, for instance. A long-term unique study program, ideally from six years old until fourteen years old, would give teachers enough time to dedicate to their subjects, avoiding useless repetition of content, and limiting the stress caused by school relocation.

Italian School. Photo source: 

The apathy of teachers

For decades, the Italian schooling system has been compared to “a parking lot” by many intellectuals and, most recently, this comparison was made by the Italian politician Matteo Salvini to describe the condition of middle school. This comparison is indeed very effective: as a parking lot, which is a guarded place where citizens can safely leave their vehicles, the Italian schooling system constitutes a public institution where tenured teachers hold safe jobs, and do not have to account for their behaviour and performance. Although it is becoming more and more difficult for an Italian citizen to obtain a tenured position – especially in the middle school/high school sector – once this professional status is reached, it is virtually impossible for a professor to lose their job. Historically, examples of teachers with permanent positions that lose their jobs due to didactic incompetence are anecdotal: it happened once in 1987, and a second time in 2015.

The process required to become an Italian high school professor who holds a permanent position is complex and explaining how this process works goes beyond the aim of this essay. Nevertheless, we can immediately point at what is not a prerequisite to achieve this goal: future professors are not required to complete a personality test. In other words, to become a teacher it would be essential to have competence in a specific discipline of interest, but not in the way you communicate the discipline and interact with students. Being an expert in Italian Literature, a brilliant writer or an extraordinary poet even, does it make you a charismatic and empathic professor?
The concept of charisma is not obvious: in literature there is no consensus on what factors define it, nor how they should be identified and interpreted. On one hand, charisma could merely be oriented towards teacher’s attitudes and skills, such as personality, being enthusiastic, humorous and goal-oriented, preparation and performance, and generally their ability to attract students’ interest and get them to appreciate teachers’ ideas (5, 6). On the other hand, charisma could be oriented towards teachers’ empathic skills, with the aim of improving the relationship with students. Teachers would establish a comforting and safe place for students to exchange ideas, providing feedbacks on their practices (7). A first analysis performed in 2013 on junior high school students in Taiwan indicated that charisma is a positive factor to spark students’ interest in learning (5). To note, charisma was divided into four components: Personality, Knowledge, Humour and Teaching Method. However, stimulating students’ enthusiasm might not be enough to effectively enhance their real learning. A second study performed in 2013 demonstrated that students can overestimate the proficiency of their professors’ teaching, thus overestimating their actual learning. Students were confronted with a lecturer, who exhibited a certain mode of speaking and behaving. When students felt that the lecturer was prepared and convincing, they also thought to have learned better. But this was not the case (8). A teaching style that appears fluent and persuasive does not seem to positively correlate with actual learning. Nevertheless, this study only focuses on what students can memorize by attending a lecture; it tells nothing about how instructors’ charisma can trigger their curiosity afterwards. More interested students are more willing to deepen their knowledge, to search for more detailed information, to spend more time studying a certain subject. This observation is indeed confirmed by personal experience: if we think about it, we better remember those professors who captured our attention in the classroom, and of whom we studied the subjects with more pleasure, passion and accuracy. On the other side, spineless professors with personalities unsuited to teaching can demotivate students, who might permanently lose interest in their subjects.
It is therefore of growing importance that professors teaching at the middle/high school level are charismatic, and the institutions should think of introducing specific tests to evaluate the personality of aspiring teachers.

Introduction of essential subjects

The Italian schooling system is deeply anchored in a humanistic-centred vision of the world. The study plan of the secondary school in scientific studies – the so-called “Liceo scientifico” – and in classical studies – the so-called “Liceo classico” – which are notoriously the most challenging types of high school in Italy, display compulsory subjects such as ancient Greek and Latin. Someone may argue that studying ancient Greek and Latin is useful. For instance, one supporting argument is that other modern languages, such as Spanish and French, originated from Latin, and whoever has studied this subject, might find it easier to familiarize with the logic of German grammar, especially when confronted with declinations. Thus, studying Latin would help to better conceptualize foreign languages. Nevertheless, studying the so-called “dead languages” does not leave room for other, perhaps more essential subjects, such as Economy, Law, Contemporary History and Psychology, which are basically ignored. Nowadays, gaining some rudimentary knowledge of economics and law is fundamental to manage one’s finances and properties, especially in a period of constant economic recession. On the other side, subjects like Psychology and Contemporary History are the key to understand the world we live in. The case of History is emblematic. As previously mentioned, pupils spend entire cycles of studies re-taking lessons about the history of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. This approach is deleterious because professors are left with no time to teach contemporary history. With rare exceptions, a well-educated Italian teenager knows nothing about Italian and World history from the Second World War onwards. Thus, given that young Italian people ignore the historical roots that gave birth to the society they live in, they are left with no tools to comprehend the political forces that guide their nation and to make informed decisions and choices on the future of their country.

Changing the tools

Western civilizations are facing two unprecedented anthropological revolutions, which happen to be deeply interconnected, and which have been discussed in detail on Culturico: the digital era and the inversion of the master-pupil paradigm. In short, thanks to the diffusion of flat internet and smartphones, teenagers spend most of their time communicating digitally, and studying or getting information on the web. In addition, given the extreme speed at which the transition happened, most of the adults could not easily keep up with the technological shift. This phenomenon has led to a situation in which adults are losing authority over youngsters and are eventually forced to ask for their help to make sense of digital platforms that are permeating our society.
This scenario is affecting also the professor-student paradigm. Professors, who have always had trouble to earn the trust of their students, are still teaching on books and blackboards, while students spend their day in front of a screen. This discrepancy contributes to establishing a schooling environment that does not reflect teenagers’ reality anymore. Students are forced to spend hours sitting in front of traditional tools, such as pencils, pens and notebooks, that no longer belong to their daily life outside of school. When speaking about the introduction of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) at school, which means the implementation of computers, internet and digital technology in daily classroom activities, Italy does not reflect OECD standards. In 2011, the use of ICT for Italian students in 8th grade (13-14 years old) was limited to 30%, far below the OECD average (48%). In 2012, not more than 22% of classrooms displayed interactive whiteboards, compared to 80% in the United Kingdom (9). Beyond this gap in equipment, although Italian students are more prone than students living in other OECD countries to research through the web, they get lost more easily during browsing. In fact, while students’ browsing activity in Italy is intensive, a 2015 OECD report shows that its quality was below average (10). This observation suggests that students do not make fruitful use of web search. Most likely, their browsing is unfocused because they lack the expertise to evaluate the sources and to select trustable information.
The Italian schooling system is therefore in urgent need of professors capable of introducing students to a proper use of the Internet.
Digital literacy can indeed be efficiently accomplished at school in multiple ways. We can mention a few. First of all, the web is the main way to inform ourselves nowadays: professors, when properly trained, could help students to make sense of the vast amount of information that is found online every day. Then, as students, we are often told not to blindly trust the teachings, but to question them, and “to source back to sources”. Unfortunately, nobody tells students how to find them. Nowadays, using the Internet is the easiest and fastest way to access experimentally corroborated scientific knowledge, which is, to date, the most reliable source of information we have. Learning how to find and how to read scientific papers is essential to establish a concrete contact with reality. There is also a growing number of online platforms that are trying to fill the gap between the academic reality and everyday information, presenting scientifically anchored knowledge via a more accessible and less rigorous language. A brilliant example is represented by Quillette, which publishes informative articles written by young researchers, scholars and well-educated citizens in general. In addition, communicators releasing videos and podcasts concerning multiple disciplines are now growing in number and can be found on YouTube and other online platforms with free and unrestricted access. This way, professors could really make the Internet a vehicle to gain knowledge.

In a nutshell

The Italian compulsory education relies upon a fairly antiquated system, which is in urgent need of renovation.

The structure needs restructuring. My suggestion is to fuse primary and middle schools, establishing a unique course of studies of eight years. This solution will avoid the useless repetition of teaching. In addition, professors will have enough time to deepen the quality of their lessons and students will not be required to change school two times in three years, reducing the related stress.

The procedure of teachers’ selection needs restructuring. Charisma must be introduced as a necessary criterion for the acquisition of novel teachers. Implementing this will increase the chance of nurturing students’ passion and enthusiasm at school.

A shift from a humanistic/theoretical-centred vision to a more scientific/practical one is needed. This transition will help students to better comprehend the economic, historical and sociological context they live in.

The correct use of the Internet must permeate daily activities at school. The misuse of digital technology among students is a serious phenomenon, and the schooling system is to date incapable to fix it. The entire teaching staff should receive an appropriate training in digital literacy in order to keep up with the current shift in educational tools.


Simone Redaelli



  1. PISA 2018, Results, Italy – Country Note.
  2. Piaget, J., “The Psychology of Intelligence”, 1960.
  3. Park D. C., et al., “The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project”, 2014.
  4. Rumberger, R. W., “Student Mobility: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2015.
  5. Lee, De-Chin et al., “Does Teachers Charisma Can Really Induce Students Learning Interest?”, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2013.
  6. Ellis, R., “Quality assurance for university teaching”, 1993.
  7. Raelin, J. A., “Taking the charisma out: teaching as facilitation”, Organization Management Journal, 2006.
  8. Carpenter, S. K., et al., “Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning”, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2013.
  9. Avvisati, F., et al., “Review of the Italian Strategy for Digital Schools”, OECD, 2013.
  10. “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection”, PISA, OECD, 2015.
Received: 16.02.20, Ready: 16.03.20, Editors: Celeste Varisco, Robert Ganley.

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