Immigrant children in Italy between school and city policies

by Eduardo Barberis, Silvia Demozzi and Federica Taddia, Italy


Disadvantages in education and transition from edu- cation to work are often associated with ethnicity and migration. We have a large and growing body of literature on this and, even if we see exceptions for such a statement (e.g., the school performance of Asian mino- rities in the U.S.), this trend seems confirmed in many countries. This sets out a cummulative effect affecting the following trajectories in education, society and in the labour market. Migrant pupils are disadvantaged in terms of enrollment by type of school, duration of education, achievement, drop-out, and thus in life and labour chances. The degree of such disadvantage is dependant on the national education systems (e.g., selective vs. comprehensive ones) and on the contexts their embedded in, framing how difference is treated: usually, the educational attainment of pupils with mi- gration background (CMB) is comparatively higher in countries with lower levels of economic inequality, high investments in childcare and a well-developed system of preschool education (Parreira do Amaral et al. 2011).

Thus, the interaction between ascriptive features and institutional arrangements is object of research on edu- cational inequality in many countries, also to see how migration and ethnicity are interwoven with other features, both cultural (e.g., parental education styles) and structural (e.g., socio-economic status, citizenship rights, coping institutions).

Even though it is now hard to define Italy as a “new” immigration country – since it has been experiencing more immigration than out-migration for more than thirty years now, it is anyway clear that immigration has reached significant numbers and become a political and policy issue decades later than in most of Continental Europe.

In this respect, Italy is fully within a “Mediterranean” model of migration (King 2002; Baldwin-Edwards 2005), characterized by, first, specific migration processes:

•    late, usually started in a post-Fordist socio-economic stage;
•    as a consequence, with destandardized access to the labour market, in mature industries, traditional sectors and low tiers of post-Fordist secondary and tertiary sectors;
•    fast-growing, including a fast shift to mature stages of migration processes with the settlement of families;
•    not (only) post-colonial, and hence plural, origin countries;
Second, a treatment of migration consistent with its welfare state model (residual, family-based with passive subsidiarity, fragmented, category-based) and its nati- on- and state-making (weak and evolving territorial un- balances; weak rule of the law).

Since the growth of migration peaked just in the last 15 years, a new cycle of migration resulting from family reunification, pressure on welfare and educational institutions is quite recent. Given this background, we can wonder if Italy has a model of integration for its immigrants. If we think about grand narratives that, besides their successes and failures, characterize the debate in many European immigration countries – the Dutch multiculturalism, the English race relations, or the French intègration républicaine – the answer is probably: no, it hasn’t. And this is probably tied to the lack of a grand nation-making narrative itself (Triandafyllidou 2002; Melotti 2008).

Though, we can see a mode – if not properly a model – quite consistent with its political culture and welfare state-making, whose main features are:

  • an emergency coping of the issue (Ambrosini 1999), with the lack of planning and vision;
  • the gap between formal rules and actual practices, that grounds a contradictory discourse on migration where security issues intertwine utilitarian discourses, with mass regularization of undocumented migrants, and with pro-immigrant coalitions (Caponio & Graziano 2011; Zincone 2006);
  • the delegation to Third Sector;
  • the  localism  (Caponio  2008),  engendering  a postcode lottery of social rights in context-based mixes and degrees of denizenship: available rights are likely more tied to local cultures and resources than to national rules.

In the field of immigrant policies, the main trend resulting from this mode is toward a so-called “intercultural” paradigm, that basically means a local declension of something blurred, in-between assimilation and multiculturalism, that scholars think as positively flexible(Chaloff 2006), but also inconsequential, lacking policy tools to achieve assimilation (e.g., equal treatment) and multiculturalism (e.g. formal acknowledgment of diversity) (Saint-Blancat & Perocco 2005; Liddicoat & Diaz 2008).The education system is no exception to this: compared analyses on parents and children‘s educational career shows that it is part of the intergenerational reproduc- tion of disadvantage (Checchi & Flabbi 2007; Barberis et al. 2010), and also policies show a relevant weakness.

The Italian education policy and disadvantage

First of all, it should be highlighted that the Italian school system is comprehensive: disadvantaged groups are not taught separately from mainstream school popu- lation, and the schools offer a universal education set- ting, through with specific projects and professionals to address specific problems. Since the 1970s, after a long and rich debate, there aren’t special schools for physi- cally or mentally impaired pupils (but for very rare and specific cases), and all following comprehensive choices started from there.

Thus, schools and local authorities built up their know- how incrementally within local public-private partner- ships... and individual goodwill, given the actual problems in teacher training (blocked for three years now) and retraining. And this became more and more true starting from late 1990s/early 2000s, when decentralization and regionalization became a keystone of new institutional reforms: school autonomy and the federal constitutional reform redistributed competences, power and responsibility, though with inconsequential resour- ces, paving the way to a “decentralization of penury” and blame-avoiding strategies in the State retrenchment (Kazepov 2010).

As a consequence the relief network can be very variab- le, and including many different actors: schools, welfare agencies, peers, but also sport clubs, religious associa- tions, volunteering and other Third Sector bodies (Fil- ippini, Genovese, Zannoni, 2010).

So, since 2001, social policy is a regional matter, including school assistance, both for cash (scholarships, grants, contributions) and in-kind measures (transportations, meals, textbooks and teaching materials, etc.), variously implemented together with Provinces and Municipalities.

In this context, emerging risks, like the ones concerning the integration of CMB, found fragmented answers: support teachers are not foreseen (unless pupils are di- sabled), and more or less professionalized and instituti- onalized intercultural and linguistic mediators became relevant to help teachers and school staff communica- ting with pupils and their families. They are often pro- vided by local authorities as well as by associations and organizations working at local level, though the conti- nuity of the service is often challenged by funding usu- ally coming from temporary projects and by the lack of clear national professional rules and practices.

As we will see later, this has an influence on immigrant pupils’ trajectories, building unsecured and wavering careers, where expectations are curbed by an obtrusive denizenship that cuts life chances.

As a consequence, coping strategies CMB put into practice can be different, like, among the others:

  • mimetic strategies (“behave as an Italian would”), doo- med to failures when clashing with daily and institutional discrimination;
  • downward assimilation and reactive identities, finding a shelter in deviant subcultures;
  • selective acculturation, trying to exploit own skills (and positive effects of statistical discrimination) to find a way in specific fields.

Summing up risks for CMBs

There are two main different risk trajectories for newco- mers and long-stayers: the first group feels excluded, the second is going toward a downward assimilation.

In this respect, the importance of achieving in school should not be underrated. Somehow, a relevant share of CMB living in Italy for more than 5 years seem to “give up”. Actually, in comparative terms we can see that newcomers “fight” much more to achieve: using a private tutor to improve their knowledge and skills, spending more time studying at home. According to our research in GOETE, in Bologna and Ancona non- Italian pupils used private tutors more than Nationals, with a peak in 1-to-5-years residents in Bologna, where more than half of them used a tutor, vs. a general average of 37%.

Thus, it looks very important to close the gap as soon as possible, since this has an effect not only on school career, but on self-esteem – an issue that can be seen on assertivity scales, where CMB are more discouraged about their ability to cope with problems, trying hard (especially newcomers) and relying on their skills (espe- cially long-residents), and much less interested in the “voice” options at school, since their trust or knowledge for chance of expressing their views at school is limited.

Furthermore, long-stayers seem quite “disenchanted”: poor feeling of belonging, lowest religious support in their coping network, more skepticism about school and work. They are also much more keen at moving to a different place to find a job (even much more than recent migrants, that one could expect to feel less belon- ging to their new locale), for reasons that are not only acquisitive, but also based on self-expression. 86% of them would move to a different city (vs. 71% of Natio- nals), and 68% to a different country (vs. 45%).

From a welfare institution point of view, we can thus see that support agencies fail to cope properly with newco- mers and to make up for their limited social resources; as time passes, a spiral of demotivation and downward assimilation starts, likely based also on fallen expectations.

Though, school is just part of the problem – as we will see in the last chapter: sometimes it even plays a role exceeding their strict remit (as the time spent by some children in afternoon social activities shows); somehow their educational task is achieved, though in a quite assimilationist way, as the gap between nationals and CMB becomes smaller for those spending more years in the Italian education and belonging to generations born in Italy show (Della Zuanna et al. 2009; INVALSI 2010), and with an excessive burden on families.

Though, the main issue seems an inconsistent support network, with a poor involvement of support professionals and of out-of-school activities and bodies. We will try to sort this issue out in the last part of this paper, with a qualitative point of view on definition of disadvantage and coping and governance according to principals, teachers, parents and pupils.

Defining and coping immigrant disadvantage in local case studies in GOETE

Who is disadvantaged according to students, parents and teachers?

As we mentioned above, Italy is characterized by a low intergenerational mobility, so that people from poorly educated parents are at higher risk in their educational career, of underachieving, being dropped out and ending up in vocational schools.

Therefore, the GOETE project aims at analysing the role of school in reconceptualising education in terms of lifelong learning by combining a life course and a governance perspective which should be able to cope with socio-economic disadvantage. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to understand what success and failure in education depend on.

Is children’s school achievement affected by problematic family life, housing conditions and poverty? Or is it much more affected by immigrant backgrounds? To what extent do success depend on the support pupils can get informally or formally? Are, finally, mobbing and bullying indications of increasing stress and pressure which will affect young people’s career perspectives?

GOETE investigates how students, especially those from deprived social backgrounds, cope with educational demands. It analyses measures of active inclusion through formal and informal support inside and out- side school and how formal, non-formal and informal learning are related within education systems in general and in educational trajectories in particular.

These research questions have been especially addressed in local case studies, aimed at understanding how educational trajectories evolve from the interaction between institutional structures, educational practice and individual agency. So, different perspectives of all relevant actors inside and outside school have been investigated through focus groups, individual interviews, expert interviews and classroom research.

Local studies tried to examine differences in educational achievement mostly focusing on those pupils more at risk of scholastic failure such as immigrants and students with poor socio-economic background: thus, three schools (one per each city) were chosen because located in disadvantaged areas and/or having important shares of pupils with immigrant or lower class background.

In the following lines, we will summarize the emerging issues coming out from focus groups and interviews try- ing to define “who is disadvantage at school” in the opi- nion of teachers, parents, but also students themselves.
First of all, we have to underline a significant difference between Bologna and Ancona on the one hand (North and Centre) and Catania (South) on the other. Due to the different immigration rate (as mentioned above), the inclusion of CMB among the disadvantaged is not the same.

Leaving aside disability and learning disorders as fac- tors characterizing educational disadvantage all over the country, we can see that in Bologna and Ancona one of the main disadvantaged groups according to our interviewees are exactly CMBs, while in Catania those coming from families involved in illegal activities. So, we will focus mainly on first two cases.

In all the local cases, interviewed parents usually consider school and education as relevant to succeed and to overcome disadvantage: they have often a lower level of schooling than their children and do not want them to follow their footsteps. Though, most of them also state the importance of the economic factor: without money, it is difficult to give children great opportunities of education.

“In my opinion, unfortunately [children’s] future doesn’t depend on education, but on money and social status. Meritocracy does not exist either in the public sphere nor in the private... And, after all, even if it would be existed, in Italy there’s no money”. (Mother, Ancona)

This opinion is quite shared by parents. In Catania, most parents barely have a lower secondary school license: what really matters to them is to find a way to get a salary at the end of the month and this issue affects also their children’s choices and views on education and work.

Not by chance, also in the GOETE survey, immigrant and lower class parents state that there are difficulties standing in their child’s way of achieving the desired level of education (up to 60% against a total average of 30%).

So, wealth is somehow considered a determinant of future success, and this can have a strong effect on expectation of future careers and social mobility for many disadvantaged groups, including CMB.

If money is among the most relevant issues, motivati- on is also quite important. In this latter respect, every interviewee passes the buck over the responsibility. On the one hand, parents are generally critical towards nowadays society that, in their opinion, makes children spoiled and anxious to consume. On the other hand, teachers point out the gap between their teaching (on the relevance of education, on social values like respect and equality) and what pupils learn in other environments outside the school. Together with media, parents are exactly among the most blamed: actually, poorly supportive families, together with immigrant background, are the features that for most interviewees define risk of disadvantage.

“Most of them want a pragmatic job, to work for one’s bread and butter. The word “education” sounds empty to them”. (Teacher, Catania, referring to her pupils).

“These children lack emotional grounds. They are ravaged by those parents back in their adolescence; they are forty, but they look like fifteen years old. This lack of responsibility affects children dangerously, and at school one told me: “yesterday I couldn’t do my homework, since I’ve been all the day with my mother”; “Where?”; “Mom had her back tattooed, and I spent all the day in the tattoo shop” (Teacher, Ancona)

Immigrant parents are somehow considered different, though lacking social and human capital to help their children enough. Some parents and teachers blame immigrant families because of their supposed lack of motivation in integrating their children and because of their poor communication with school. Actually, the interpretation of some teachers is that immigrant parents do not take care of their children the way they should: “it is a cultural issue, they do not have a lease on life” (Teacher, Bologna). Besides immigrants, such remarks refer to Roma children, isolated from a cultural and a geographical point of view.

“There is a hope for these children only if they have the possibility to interact with different realities. This is what we try to do here at school” (Teacher, Bologna).

“The reasons of educational disadvantage are principally two: our pupils do not know neither to read nor to write. And they aren’t able to stay too many hours in the same place (a classroom) respecting rules” (Teacher, Bologna).

Some difficulties and disadvantages are somehow perceived as time-bounded, as for lacking integration due to short stays and school attendance.

“They always stay at home, they do not go to birthday parties. They have not been integrating yet”. (Step Father of two Romanian Children rejoined with their mother at the age of 14).

Though, there are also signs and confirmations of downward assimilation trends. Actually, an interesting emerging issue is that Italian pupils with learning or relational difficulties tend to get along better with immigrant pupils.

“My son’s best friend is from Senegal” (Italian mother of a child involved in an episode of bullying, Ancona).

“My daughter get along well overall with foreign girls” (Italian mother of a child involved in an episode of bullying and with learning disorder).

Besides this, there’s also a perception of a structural disadvantage and the need for specific coping measures to close the gap as soon as possible to avoid problems to become chronic. And the need of education tools to face a radical change in society, where cultural diversity is becoming more and more common, as the quotations below illustrate:

“School pays more attention to pupils who have been just arrived from abroad... to foreigners... because they have to reach our level in short time”. (Italian pupil, Ancona).

“It’s difficult to take into account all individual needs, especially if there are more than 20 pupils per class! Teachers do a lot of work, due to personal will and motivation. I do not know how much do it really come from in service teacher training...” (Mother, Bologna).

How to cope with CMBs’ disadvantage

All in all, school staff feels somehow overwhelmed by their task. Actually, if the definition of disadvantage includes “big” structures (social values and – to a lesser extent – pupils’ culture) it could be that their role is perceived as limited and underrated.

So, motivation is an important issue also for school staff, and the perception of appropriateness in coping with disadvantage is often tied to a personal investment more than to a proper institutional structure or to a relevant training. This is true especially for disadvantage referred to CMB, since no specialized training path (if not some refresher courses) have been attended by our interviewees.

„Teachers do a lot of work, due to personal will and motivation. I do not know how much do it really come from in service teacher training...” (Mother, Bologna).

Obviously this engenders well known problems of fragmentation, continuity and accountability of actions. Within schools coping strategies in the last years started to be more and more defined – more on the grassroots level than due to national guidelines and policies. It was a learning by doing (“we have the art of getting by” Teacher, Bologna), that built up a local know how, later on shared at local, regional and national level.

„Despite expenditure cuts and personnel shortage, I think that teachers always did all they could do: they were always available, even in the afternoons when they asked pupils to stay at school for refreshing lessons.“ (Mother, Ancona)

„This school does a lot: they organize afternoons at school to keep pupils far from the street...But, pupils are too many: some of them unfortunately remain outside with no place in educational centers or afternoons groups.“ (Teacher assistant, Bologna)

Intercultural education, coping paths for newcomers (e.g., assessment of skills) are more and more well- known issue within the school system, though without adequate “protection” by norms and policies. Thus, generalization of experiences and good practices risks to be limited:

  • with no ripple effect outside school, due to a weak network linking schools with local institutions;
  • due also to a week network with some families that do not recognize the educational role of school: “pupils get different messages and end up without catching which is the whole meaning” (Teacher, Bologna).
  • with no continuity and professionalism, due to a low level of institutionalization: measures are usually financed by projects, and just schools with planning and project-making skills – in a context of school autonomy – can be “safe” on continuity; on the other hand, professionals considered as more and more relevant, like intercultural mediators and facilitators, suffer from a limited availability, and a not so clear professionalization.
  • with no continuity with upper secondary schools due to a lack of supporting projects after the end of lower secondary school. Educators and teacher say that parents recurrently ask: “And then? What about next year? Where should my child go? And where will you be?”...

In this respect, we can compare the different organization models in Ancona and Bologna.

In the first case, we have a strong horizontal networks among schools: on their own, they agreed guidelines and procedures to welcome new-coming CMBs and to assess transitions to following school grades.

For example the “Commissione dorica” get together teachers from lower and upper secondary schools to assess transition problems of pupils, also defining an evaluation test on skills and knowledge helping teachers to fine-tune education according to needs.

This helps overcoming local level fragmentation, and shows a concern for problems arising from a misunderstood interpretation of school autonomy. Though, this self-organization is not matched with an easy involve- ment of other local actors.

The gap with the municipality is quite relevant: on the school side, it is perceived as a weak counterpart, mainly a cash supplier for side projects, while a stronger coordination and planning role would be desired. On the municipality side, there’s an aggregative interpretation (March & Olsen 1989) of its role in the field of education: no intention to suggest policy addresses, just a provision of cash to support emerging needs. So, the same issue (a cash provision for side measures) finds strikingly different interpretations: it is considered as unconcern by school, and as the best way of expressing concern by the Municipality.

There are also other factors of conflict: another relevant one is the role of municipal social service, perceived as poorly collaborative by school staff, so that relevant cases are not coped at best.

In the second case, the coping network is much more articulated. Local institutions collaborate with school in the field of intercultural education and CMBs’ integration: in this respect, the cases of CD/LEI (Archive and Lab for Intercultural Education) and “Centri Anni Verdi” are quite meaningful.

The CD/LEI was created in 1992 with an Agreement between the Municipality and the Province of Bologna, the Local Education Office and the University (Department of Education). From 2002 the Centre is part of the Education Office of the Bologna Municipality and, for this reason, it cooperates with territorial agencies and foundations to promote several projects inside and out of the schools.

In particular, the centre supports and encourages the schools to run intercultural projects and joining transnational networks. It helps educational services to set up intercultural tools that schools use to cope with cultural diversity. To promote these aspects CD/LEI offers:

  • training, information, counselling and documentation services to teachers, intercultural mediators, educators, social workers, students and families;
  • intercultural training (e.g. seminars, workshops) for teachers, school staff and social workers on themes rela- ted to intercultural education, citizenship, cooperation, human rights and equal opportunities;
  • intercultural counselling concerning the inclusion of migrant students in school (e.g. information desk on norms regulating foreign students, projects, evaluation and case analyses);
  • documentation (e.g. Multicultural Library and Archive of intercultural experimentations) which have been run by local schools.

“Centri Anni Verdi” are afternoon educational centers run by professional educators, who care for the educational intervention and daily relationships with families, schools and territory. They provide learning experiences, fun and relational moments aimed at preteens (11-14 years) in the city of Bologna, within an educational context in which the listening and participation are the fundamental prerogatives. They have about 140 children enrolled.

Together with schools, regular meetings with teachers are set in order to monitor the progress of children attending; they also define pathways for individual support: workshops and activities are co-designed. Centri Anni Verdi choose to work together with local services and educational agencies to promote a more targeted intervention in the development of existing resources within the community of life of pre-teens, creating shared projects to receive and offer possible answers to the needs and demands of children (See also www.aspi-


CMB are actually disadvantaged within the school system, due to an institutional setting unable to cope with diversity in a structured manner. The cycle of falling into disadvantage starts with an insufficient safety net for newcomers, in which the comprehensive education system turns to be an assimilationist machine, with a selective and subaltern inclusion of CMB and the blaming of those cut out, that defines non-deserving risk groups (mainly: male pre-adolescents with a long migration history). This paves the way for demotivation and downward assimilation, thus reinforcing negative stereotypes and blaming.

School staff is usually quite aware of resulting problems and risks of disadvantage for CMB pupils. Probably, to them the risk is clearer as far as newcomers are concerned: grassroots actions for welcoming them are quite defined, though not always easy to implement due to resource and skills problems.

On the other hand, not rarely long-stayers are consi- dered “like Italians”: this implicit assimilation underrates their problems of fallen expectations when clashing with legal obstacles (citizenship issue) and direct and indirect discrimination (Colombo, Domaneschi & Marchetti 2011).

Notwithstanding these limits, schools are quite active in promoting intercultural education: though, from an institutional point of view, the main failures is that school autonomy risks to turn into isolation, especially in a period of retrenchment. On the one hand, the state school policy targeting CMB as a disadvantaged group is extremely weak: it should be enough to say that the only norm that was echoed in the public debate concerned the maximum share of non-Italian pupils per class...
Besides funding owed to school having an high share of non-Italian pupils, there’s a missing policy line supporting the coping of pupils’ disadvantages. This has obviously an influence on institutionalization and the building of a steady know-how.

So, in a more and more federal State, we could assume that regional and local institutions play a focal role. This is however just partly true: first, the implementation of local autonomy is still ongoing, with blurred competence boundaries; second, the decentralization has not touched enough the resource allocation, so at the moment we are Cdecentralizing penuryd (Mény & Wright 1985), in the Italian case in a way very consisted with its fragmented welfare state. That is: much responsibility on families, coping by emergency more than by planning, unsure resources and measures, linked with shortterm projects.

Due to a lack of check and balances in the territorial governance, we see strong path-dependency in local networks, with weaker and poorer areas not able to catch up and with problems in building working interinstitutional actions to cope with multi-problematic cases and new need profiles.


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