Category Archives: primary education

The Paradox of Choice

‘Mummy, I feel like I am on that wheel at the park in Grosseto. If I run up one side, it’s England and if I run up the other side, it’s Italy. I don’t know which way to go.’

P.’s articulation of this equivocal state captured perfectly our own feelings. November marks the start of the final weeks of packing up before we move back to England.

P. is torn, as we all are, by the paradox of choice that brought us here initially. We created it for ourselves in choosing to step out of who we were and push on the boundaries that we create for ourselves in life. On one side stands England and for H. and P., returning will doubtless bring some relief as they pull on the garbs of familiarity in their daily life: the walk to school, friendships which will be negotiated in mother tongue, the comfort of being close to family, of the consistency of having Tom around regularly, of not having to say goodbye to him on his London weeks.

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Dam building and wild water in Italy

On the other side stands Italy, the spirit of adventure which brought us here and which has defined our time on the Amiata. An experience in Italy that has pushed our boundaries, as individuals and as a family. Italy that has, paradoxically within its restrictive and potentially infuriating bureaucracy, afforded us extraordinary freedom in countless ways. The paradoxical confusion of P.’s feelings are played out for all of us in our emotions and in our existence here.

Teetering on the poignant cusp between Italy and England I feel this paradox acutely in what this year has offered the children. In leaving England, we left a school system that I felt strangled the very children it was supposed to teach. Despite the best intentions of many teachers who can see the pitfalls of the curriculum, the driving force of English schooling strait-jackets children into rote learning and tests, conforming them out of creativity. We plucked them out of that, held hands and leapt into the dark, in truth knowing very little about what it would be like here. Not knowing and, initially, not understanding, was, on reflection, extraordinarily liberating not only for me, as an educational professional and as a mother, but also for the children. School in our first year in Italy became about the language, and understanding what was going on, rather than about tests, testing, keeping up or racing ahead, in whatever way those featured within the tiny school the children attended. To be within an education system only temporarily affords a very different and potentially liberating perspective.

The unfolding of the school year ran in parallel with our increasing understanding of Italian. With the flowering of language came the understanding that this is an education system that is utterly broken, albeit in very different ways from that in the UK. Information with which I suppose I could have armed myself easily before we came, had I chosen to research. There must have been an instinctive self-correction there: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and too much knowledge would almost certainly have compromised our decision to move here. So we left one education system that, in focusing solely on measuring, testing and results, is losing its way and risks disenfranchising from learning a vast swathe of the next generation, to a system that is beyond ripe for reform both administratively and inside the classroom.

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Outdoor learning at Poggio d’Oro

As with almost all things Italian, however, for every broken system, incomprehensible law, unfathomable decision, there is another way, a ‘giro’ or a ‘soluzione Italiana’ if it can be found. The circumvention to those regulations which are less palatable, coupled with an innovation which is actually key to the Italian mindset, are two qualities which meant it was possible for my Italian friend and I to set up our alternative school here in Italy. Thus it is, that, despite the trials of last school year, H. and P. are now enjoying three months in a school that is overwhelmingly joyful. We came from a schooling system that struggled to maintain creativity despite the system, through a state run school here that nominally aspired to teach differently, but was strangled regularly by the bureaucracy for which Italy is renowned, to reach this brief, beautiful, halcyon period. Three months of school that feels wholesome, alive and joyous. Poggio d’Oro (literally, ‘knoll of gold’) does feel golden. Perhaps particularly golden in the poignancy of this moment, as we stand once more on the cusp of change. This golden hillock is giving children their childhood. Freeing them to learn in ways which excite, energise and inspire them.

As I walk up to school for our regular afternoon meeting, I hear the children’s games. One day they have found treasure, beautiful coloured stones and they are deciding as a close knit team of children, where to keep their precious booty. Another day they come running over to tell us that they have found out where the chickens have been laying their eggs, they’ve collected eight and put them inside to be shared out. One afternoon they are tasting the juice they pressed from grapes when they learned about wine making with a local producer – excitedly they tell me it has started to ferment naturally – they are making wine!

On other occasions a friend brings them back from school. They tumble in the door, generally grubby from a day which at some point has been spent outside gathering autumn’s bounty or starting to build their wooden base house or down in the cantina making a town from clay ready to light up at Christmas. Their faces are shiny with excitement – they have made me crotcheted necklaces, they need to buy screws and nails so that they can carry on constructing their base, they made soap out of olive oil and pressed flower leaves in. They are learning songs for Christmas and they had a go at a new martial art. Tomorrow is their beloved Feda who teaches them music. Only two more days til woodwork on Friday.

Capture these moments. Imprint them. Hold them close and fast. The clock ticks and I want to make this a reality in England too. The paradox of choice.

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How P. Will Beat the Captain and His Hired Sportsmen*

I am forced to do exactly what I’ve been harping on about for all these years.  The force is self induced: the choice to put myself in this situation was taken entirely freely.

I am being made to consider what it really means to say that in England, children learn too much, too young and my guinea pig is P.

For years I’ve struggled with an education system which brings children in at the age of four and pretty quickly subjects them to tests, from the faintly annoying to the utterly absurd.**

For years I have thought it at best risible that there can be 364 days difference in the ages of children who are arbitrarily put into a class based on their age on 1 September from which point they are measured against one another, regardless of well-intentioned teachers’ attempts to the contrary.

 

So, on a blind wing of faith, we came to Italy, a bizarre conflation of the ridiculous (a clunking, archaic state system) to the sublime  (pockets of progress, change and innovation such as Reggio Emilia). We chose Italy thinking that we would be liberated from the shackles of the English system and we would worry about inevitable adversities later.

It would have been virtually impossible to appreciate fully, until we lived it, quite how comprehensively Italy would throw P. into a radical ‘slowing down’ of his formal education. Thus  last September, when his English peers were sitting at desks, heads down, P found himself ‘back’ in materna, ‘only’ dealing with the challenge of learning a new language, in a system which is adamant that children should not learn formally until the age of six.

It means that P. is, to all intents and purposes a year ‘behind’.

He is a year ‘behind’ where he would be, or would have been forced to be, had we been subject to the English education system. He is a year ‘behind’ the parameters, standards, deadlines and requirements of a system obsessed with measurable standards. So P. hasn’t been forced to read and write so called number sentences, interpreting ‘mathematical statements involving addition, subtraction and equals signs’, he hasn’t been forced to sit down on a chair, at a table, to ‘describe position, direction and movements’, or ‘count in multiples of two, fives and tens’.

He hasn’t been made to write stories according to requirements to inform, describe, imagine, explain or whatever arbitrary writing objective has been chosen that day or week. He doesn’t have an assessment number or letter marked beside his name. He hasn’t sat down to toil over English language incongruities that could confound the mind of a boy who would rather consider the nautical purpose of the buoys he sees floating on the sea than concern himself with the illogical spelling exemplified in this sentence.

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Instead, out of school, in the long holidays and in weekends which we have reclaimed as ours, P. has climbed rocks at the rate of a mountain goat, explored rivers, built dams alone or with friends, working collaboratively or independently, he’s found some little mission and worked out how to solve it.

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He’s wondered over the changes wrought by nature through the seasons. In doing so he has – unbeknownst to him, started to play with Heraclitus’ philosophy of continual flux – wondering if it is possible to stand in the same river twice. He has wondered how the sea can be salty when the rivers are not when the rivers flow into the sea. He wonders if lightening is sharp and what exactly is air?

He has dug the earth disturbed only by the constant singing of the cicadas in the trees above him. He has, he believes, communed with deer and eagles who have befriended him, his imagination always alert to the possibility that the former could have eaten from his hand or the latter might have landed on the bench next to him. Coping with the loss of our own cat while experiencing killing of animals in the tradition of the ‘caccia’ as hunters circled the hills around us, we have talked about reincarnation. Teetering on the edge of high sensitivities, we have wondered about the potential of other lives and of what the idea of an afterlife means…

He has watched the stars at night, marvelling when he identified Mars above us and wondering what it means to be part of the solar system; he has interrogated what the idea of a black hole means: how could this world we know ever end if the star on which we rely burns out. He has tried to align his growing understanding of science with his sense of faith – how can humans not exist, if our spirits live on after we die, Mummy? You said that Zephyr’s spirit lived on. You said that we would go to the same heaven. How can there not be a world if we carry on as spirits?

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He has set up experiments with ice and water and challenged me to make vinegar react with bicarbonate to make his jet boat go, modifying constantly his own experiments. He has moved from one compulsive obsession to another, wondering how the boat we take to Elba floats on the water and then constructing his own fleet of ferries from Lego when we come home, displaying them according first to design, then to size.

He has started to uncover ancient Rome and the empire, standing in the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins local to us, he has interrogated the joys of a superlative acoustic space. He has visited Venice, experiencing its mesmerising beauty. Choosing his mask he engaged with the notion of disguise and playing, admiring the exploitation of subterfuge when Venice was a bustling port to the rest of the world.

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So, no, P. cannot yet write number sentences, or chant his multiples of two, he doesn’t know that the books we read together have been defined by the powers that be to have a specific purpose – to entertain or inform, apparently (it always amuses me how mutually exclusive are these definitions of the purpose of writing).

No, he cannot perform these prescribed tasks, because he’s been too busy playing. He’s been too busy tinkering with Lego or moving rocks by the river. He hasn’t watched the clock tick slowly in a classroom, his bottom wriggling with pent up energy, because he’s been too immersed in exploring, creating and pushing his boundaries.

So now, I have to have the courage of my convictions. I have to believe whole- heartedly in the very instinct that brought me here. And that means to believe that it will all come good, that the application of ‘formal learning’ doesn’t have to be imposed – too much, too young. I have to walk the talk of Finland, albeit I am doing it against the grain of the system in which we will ultimately have to operate.  I have to resist comparison to his peers, whose parents are my friends, and not succumb to the competition to be measurable and measured that is insidiously eroding the true meaning and value of learning. I have to believe that now, ripe with curiosity and bursting with questions, he will be best placed to allow the ‘formal’ learning to slot into place and overlay this year of constant play. I have to have courage in my own conviction that his intrinsic love of discovery will carry him through.

*It’s a slightly elusive title if you aren’t familiar with Quentin Blake’s tale of Tom, who spends his day fooling around, tinkering and playing and never doing as he’s asked. His stern, authoritarian aunt despairs of him, but guess who comes out trumps?

** Take the Year 1 automaton, sorry, ‘reading’ test, which requires children to decode so-called “words” which don’t even exist.

Processes or progress?

Every time I think I have reached an understanding of quite how frustratingly convoluted this country is, I am confronted with yet more examples of the sublime and the ridiculous.

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You think you dread the queue at the post office in the UK? Think again. It took me 15 minutes to collect a parcel yesterday, and that was after I’d already queued for 10. Bear in mind that I have to collect everything – normal post included – from the Post Office because the Italian Postale refuses to recognise that our address exists. It should all be so straightforward:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter
Man reads name. Man gets parcel. Man gives me parcel. Exit stage left.

But instead it runs thus:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter.
Man takes paper.
Man looks at paper.
Man wonders what is written there, even though it has been written by a colleague at the Post Office.
Man takes three paces behind him to look at the two parcels left there.
Man examines paper and parcels.
Man seems unable to join dots up, so I help him out, asking to look at the parcel, which I am fairly sure is mine.
Man reluctant to accept help; reluctant to show parcel.
I try again, ‘Fammi vedere?’
This time he brings the parcel towards me, not too close, mind, it’s more of a waft, at several arms’ length… perhaps to show me the parcel properly might be to relinquish control.
I confirm it is mine.
Then we start the painful process of trying to scan the barcode.
I kid you not. He scanned it about 15 times.
Then he walked off.
With the parcel.
I saw him hand the parcel over to a colleague who disappeared with it.

Mamma mia – how difficult can this be? I am collecting a parcel with my name on it, which has already been recorded as entering the Post Office from the deliver company, hence the slip of paper in my PO box.

Some minutes later, the colleague enters, with the parcel, affirming that it has, indeed already been scanned and I am indeed allowed to remove it from the Post Office.

Eh voilà. Parcel collected.

thumb_IMG_3397_1024I think I have said before, Italians actually seem to enjoy this. Nay, they REVEL in it. Give them a reason to create an obstacle to something simple, and create it they will.

Take the procurement of school text books. Not for the Italians a simple system whereby schools receive funding, including that for text books, allowing them to purchase the books and distribute them directly to pupils at school.

No, we can make this far more exciting and protracted, which is particularly fun in the stifling heat of July, the month in which we are allowed to collect our text books.

I say merely ‘collect’ but it’s more of a process than this word implies, a process involving at least two additional bureaucratic steps; this naturally goes hand in hand with additional paper work and signatures. So, a ‘cedola’ – or coupon – is required in order for pupils to receive their books. In the case of pupils already at school, the ‘cedola’ is given in the last weeks of school – with strict instructions, however, not to take the next step before a designated period in July. For those not already at school – such as P., moving up from materna to primaria, – the cedola is obtained from the local education administrative office. Of course, precisely where in the area you leave affects just how ‘local’ this office is. But why create a system which could avoid an additional 40 minute drive?

A ‘cedola’ for each child in hand, we then go to a local ‘libraria’. The books of course, aren’t in stock in the bookshop, they have to be ordered and delivered, which means that we get two trips to the local libraria for the price of one. It’s not that this in and of itself is hard, it’s just that it’s entirely unnecessary. We don’t pay for the books, they are state funded. We don’t choose which books we want, so this isn’t an extra step designed in order for us to assert a degree of autonomy over learning.

For that matter, neither do the individual schools choose their books – they are state written, state distributed text books. Herein lies another problem of the Italian education system. A big one.

Thus at the bookshop we wait while the correct boxes on the cedola are ticked and information is entered into the computer system (the same information which has already been entered at the education administrative office, where it was required in order to enrol children at school in the first place).

In a week or so, we will be able to go back to the libraria to collect the books, which naturally will involve a little more box ticking and paper shuffling.

The whole ‘cedola’ system is simply a way in which we can overcomplicate a system that could be really quite straightforward. The beauty of it, of course, from a bureaucratic point of view, is that it allows for provision of another piece of paper, which must carry an official stamp and be signed by the ‘dirigente’ (director) of the area’s schools – a nice opportunity to assert authority and clarify hierarchies.

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe it’s all designed specifically to keep people in work and humanity in communication. Perhaps Italy is fiercely protecting its archaic cedola system in order to keep local book stores alive and local authority officers in jobs. Perhaps the several steps required before we are in possession of our tools for learning should be seen as a triumph of the supremacy of human interaction. Perhaps this is something we will yearn for in England when we realise that our pursuit of progress and modernisation consigns us to engaging in futile and furious interactions with ‘online processes’, as we rage against machines and systems which crash on us at the crucial moment

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A Film and a Festa

I’ve written before about Italian bureaucracy, but it really is as bad as everyone says. And worse. Barely a day passes here without someone saying to me, at some point, ‘Ah…. questa Italia…. Beh, siamo in Italia…..’ , usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug which reads to me as a cross between resignation to absurdity and badge of honour.

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ready to bake – biscotti salati

It affects every walk of life, from procuring a loyalty card at the supermarket to taking food into school on birthdays. Indeed, at birthdays, children are only allowed to take into school a cake bought at a shop, accompanied by a receipt, to celebrate with friends. Despite the fact that Italians are so proud of the cooking of ‘nonna’ or ‘mamma’, so protective of family recipes and the correct ways of making dishes and eating food, the law (I have yet to find out whether this local, regional or national) would rather decree that children eat shop bought food, no doubt loaded with excess sugar or glucose fructose syrup, than a home cooked treat. The irony is that at gatherings outside school hours, such as the merenda we shared yesterday after the children’s end of year performance, the table is heaped with a sumptuous array of homemade crostata, biscotti salati, pane, et cetera et cetera. At such events, everyone enthusiastically contributes something and everyone enthusiastically tastes everything.

 

 

We came across the same problem recently when we made our film for a competition run by Social Business World, which asked schools to contribute, through film, stories from every day life about living together in an ethical, sustainable and ecological way. I wrote the short film script, (we were restricted to five minutes) and a friend translated it into Italian. A dynamic Italian mother here found someone to film it, and we were ready to shoot.

Ready, that is, aside from the Italian hoops we had to jump through.

Of course, the school had to seek permission even to be involved in the project from the Dirigente (the director of schools in the area, a sort of head of education for the area).

The Dirigente decreed yes.

The Dirigente then cut a whole section of the script which involved inviting the materna school and families in to eat together. In doing so, she cut one element of the film, the intention of which had been to show community building and collaboration.

The Dirigente allowed parents to come in and prepare with the children food made with ceci (chickpeas, the small village is known for its cultivation of chickpeas, particularly its specialty, black chickpeas).

But she forbade the children from tasting the food once it was made.

Obviously the fact that it was not pre-prepared, shop bought food, accompanied by a receipt, meant it was a potential danger. This despite the fact that the teachers were there, watching the parents prepare it. The children would be allowed to eat it off site, and out of school hours, however. I have yet to understand quite whether or how these two things join up: if a child is going to become sick from eating something, this will happen whether they eat it in the school grounds before 16.30 or outside the school grounds at 16.31, and surely in each instance there would be the same possibility of litigation. Surely, I said, if it is a matter of parental consent (at 16.31, parents are present to consent to their children eating the food), we simply have to ask them to sign a form before we prepare it and taste it?

Apparently not. Given that Italians love signing pieces of paper and disclaimers in all their forms, I was surprised by this.

Nevertheless, we parents had something to sign simply to allow our chidren to partake in the film.

So, with a heavily edited script, we went ahead anyway. The children enjoyed making the film celebrating as they did so something of their community, the local livelihood and the international make up of the small school. You can watch our little film here.

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Cherries – eaten and enjoyed…. after school hours

 

The competition was small, albeit nationwide, but we were pleased to win and be invited to a three day festa in northern Italy.

And then came the process of organizing the trip. I lost track of the number of missives flying between parents and teachers regarding travel arrangements. We seemed to waste several of the four to five weeks we had to organise it discussing whether to go by train or coach, with very little resolution. But finally, with two weeks to go, the Dirigente decreed that it would be impossible, in such a short space of time, to pull together the paper work to procure permission for the trip. (From whom? From where? This I don’t understand – surely as the Dirigente, she can procure and sign the relevant papers…. ).

As with (virtually) all things I have experienced here, there is a block. Then there is a ‘gira’. I honestly think Italians revel in the blocks in order that they can come up with the circuitous way round it. The way round it is for it to be a trip organised by parents, this is naturally a neat absolution of responsibility on the part of the school or the Dirigente. And thus we continue to organise it in exactly the same way as we were organizing it before, but this time, without the need for the mysterious additional paperwork the Dirigente felt unable to deal with. We still had to sign a form, however, saying that we as parents take responsibility for our children on the trip that we are organizing for them, as parents.

Apparently the coach is booked and we leave in a week’s time, for the village of Montello, Treviso, for the Festa of Ritmi e Danza dal Mondo. As with many idealistic celebrations of peace and diversity, there will, I am sure be much talk, all of which will be fabulous, stimulating and aspirational. But if the talk is to turn into action, there will, of course, be a series of bureaucratic hurdles and caveats as well as several reams of paper…

Aspirationally, however, we are excited. Aspiration and small steps are important… After all, the raging fires of revolution start with small flames.

 

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