“Do you favourite colour?” he asks me. “Do you favourite colour?!” the teacher repeats incredulously. “Ma sei cretino?!”. It’s 10 am and I’m in a fourth year class. The boy who just asked me if I ‘favourite colour’ is 17 and has been studying English for at least seven years, if not longer; it’s not hard to see why the teacher put her head in her hands. Later, to add insult to injury, we felt forced to begin a crusade to culture the first years after not one of the class had ever heard of the Beatles. “Ma state scherzando?” (“You must be joking?”) the teacher asked. They weren’t.
I’m not going to claim that my experience is typical. I work in what is known as an istituto tecnico in the Bay of Naples, and Torre Annunziata is a problem town in a problem area. Istituti tecnici are practical schools; students still gain their leaving certificate but instead of Latin or Greek they study business economy, Italian law or topography, and one class is even learning Chinese. These schools also have the reputation of being the refuge of down-and-outs and slackers; a soft option for someone who wants to cruise their way through secondary school.
The school itself is in poor repair. There’s not a single wall that isn’t covered (and I mean covered) in graffiti, a lot of it profane and – though it isn’t considered seemly to admit it
– very funny. Add to this the fact that the place is literally crumbling and you’ve got a health and safety inspector’s worst nightmare. Italian schools are far less uptight than their British counterparts; they simply don’t go in for all those rules about health and safety that prevent you taking cake into school on your birthday in case you fatally poison one of the other pupils with your awful baking skills. To me there was nothing obscenely unsafe or inappropriate about the occasion in which the whole class hour was given over to celebrations of two pupils’ 18th birthdays, including cake and some rather dubious cava which we all agreed was past its best, but I can’t imagine your average school inspector in Britain being of the same opinion.
Students’ mouths hang open as I explain that when I went to school uniform was compulsory, homework was generally completed on time, and cheating on a test was a punishable offence – let alone cheating on a state exam, which was a sure-fire way to mar your educational record for good. Copiare (copying) is very Italian, they tell me. I have supervised English tests where every student in the room was using Google Translate on his or her phone and have marked an entire class’ worth of completely identical pieces of written homework.
Students even make WhatsApp groups for homework sharing. It’s quite an ingenious system when you think about it; each of them does the homework for one subject and then shares it with all the others. These pupils don’t have a monopoly on copying, of course, but they’ve certainly made an art of it.
But even if students choose to ignore whatever homework is assigned or not to bother revising for a test, as they frequently do, there is one very noticeable thing about this school: there is no bullying. Whereas in the UK we can’t go long without another tragic story about a teenager made suicidal by the relentless harassment of his or her peers, Italian pupils seem to have a firm – if grudging – respect for one another. Of course there is teasing (the number of times I’ve asked students to describe the person next to them only to be asked for the English for bruttissimo – very ugly – is testament to that), and of course there is a fist fight now and then (these are mostly teenage boys, after all) but no one’s life is made a misery by others, and no one person is ever singled out for continuous persecution.
The teachers work extremely hard, with many putting in hours and hours of time after school has finished, holding parent-teacher meetings or after-school sessions for pupils who are struggling. But when students from the scuole medie (11-13 years) are picking a school at which to spend the next five years of their education the istituti tecnici still have to hammer home the point that “we are not an easy option” and “our students are not stupid”. It shouldn’t need saying, but it does.
Luckily, the prejudice is slowly lifting in an economic climate where a good secondary school diploma followed by a degree is no longer enough to ensure a smooth transition from education into the world of work. To a certain extent it doesn’t matter what kind of school you attend, whether it is a prestigious liceo in Rome or an istituto tecnico in Torre Annunziata; wherever teenagers choose to take their diploma the biggest struggle is always going to be that of finding a job. With one in three young Italians unemployed, if anything a diploma with emphasis on practical knowledge of business, the economy and up-and-coming languages is going to help you rather than hinder you. At any rate it’s probably going to stand you in better stead in life than hours spent chanting Latin verbs.
And even if these schools are soft, as the Italians would say, there is always going to be something funny about a third-year class that, within the ten seconds it takes the teacher to walk down the corridor to the classroom, can successfully manage to shove all the desks into their rightful places, turn off the blazingly loud trance music, close the windows they had been leaning out of to shout at the students on the floor below, open their books and hide their noses so deeply in them that it looks as if they’ve spent the last ten minutes studying the contents intently. That at least makes it all worth it.