ROME — Home schooling is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe, compared to how widespread the educational method has become in the United States over the last 40 years. Recent estimates indicate that more than 2.3 million students are being home-schooled in the United States (against an average of 850,000 in 1999 and 1.5 million in 2007), and there are, reportedly, an estimated 48,000 students in the U.K. (against approximately 20,000 in 2009), 30,000 in France (its number has doubled over the past seven years), 4,000 in Spain (although home schooling is not yet officially legal there), and approximately 1,000 in Italy.
The phenomenon has been constantly gaining ground in all the countries where legislation provides for freedom of education and has gradually emerged as an alternative to public school’s shortcomings, whether concerning the collapse of the quality of education or the spreading of ideologies of which parents disapprove.
In Italy, numerous new initiatives have contributed to the rise in alternative educational methods. Associations promoting home schooling and home-school cooperatives or home-school academies are flourishing in the country and are being led by parents who are inspired by the success of such methods in the United States.
Freedom of education is guaranteed by the Italian Constitution, and under the law a student can finish his entire educational journey without ever having set foot in an elementary and secondary school building. The parents that choose to instruct their children themselves or through home-school cooperatives are required to notify the local school authorities every year, certifying that they have the necessary technical and economic resources to do so.
Further, as of June 2018, students must be tested at the end of each academic year to advance to the next grade, until the fulfillment of the obligatory education level (age 16). This new measure was taken by the Ministry of Public Education (Miur) to provide a legal framework for the growing home-school phenomenon throughout the country. Such a test can be administered in a school of the parents’ choice and is based on a personalized curriculum provided by the family to the school in the months before the exam.
“Until a few years ago, there wasn’t great freedom in Italy, but it has changed,” Maria Allen, a mother of eight children and a home-schooling parent for 20 years, told the Register. She started educating her children at home in the U.S., where she lived for a few years with her husband, and then decided to continue upon their returning to Italy in 2007.
“I think that mentalities are changing, thanks to active networks of home-schoolers,” she said. “This practice is becoming more and more known, and parents are increasingly searching for alternative solutions, so there are less oppositions and prejudices [to home schooling].”
Dissatisfaction With Schools
According to the parents interviewed, the growing number of families looking for educational alternatives for their children is primarily motivated by the recognition that public schools are not adequately preparing students for the demands of the workforce or adult life. Learning methods are often singled out by parents, backed up by numerous studies demonstrating the collapse of the quality of education in Italy, as well as in many other Western countries. Indeed, according to recent figures, one in every three Italian children leave primary school without being able to read, to write and to count.
“In many different places and situations, the state school offers excellency in one place while it shows serious deficiencies in another context,” said Nili Santoro, a home-schooling mom, speaking to the Register on behalf of parents from Scuole Parentali Cattoliche, a cooperative of Italian Catholic families who have chosen home schooling or a home-schooling academy.
“The situation of Italian schools is patchy, and it doesn’t play in favor of the educative coherence that the state used to guarantee until 50 years ago.”
One concern is that public schools have pushed the trend of “inclusiveness,” which tends to favor a leveling down of the quality of education by refusing to acknowledge different aptitudes and skills for the sake of fostering equality. The outcome has been an overall decline in students’ performance.
“Honestly, such policies are not the role of schools, especially in the first years of instruction, where one lays the foundations of real knowledge and true freedom of thought,” Santoro said.
An increase in the number of class hours mandated by public education, as well as a significant amount of homework, has paradoxically done little to raise Italian students’ test scores. Thus, those who turn to home-school education are generally drawn by the possibility to completely rethink the learning framework for their children, whether they use the services of a third party or they decide to teach them personally.
In the face of increasing demand for home schooling, new leaders have emerged in the educational panorama, offering innovative learning methods.
A pioneer in this field is Erika Di Martino, who has become a point of reference in Italy and beyond.
The mother of five children who have never attended a traditional school and the founder of Italian network edupar.org, Di Martino has dedicated the past few years to sharing her experience and expertise with parents throughout the country.
Her book Homeschooling: L’Educazione parentale in Italia (Homeschooling: Parental Education in Italy, 2017) is the first on this topic in Italy and came as a response to growing interest in the educational method.
“Nowadays, children live immersed in an exhausting routine made up of hours and hours of school, followed by homework, sports classes, support classes, and God knows how many other things,” Di Martino told the Register.
According to her, the current school system is by nature restrictive for a child.
“Sadly, even the best schools, with the best teachers, are made of classrooms of 20 children or more, in reduced spaces, with obsolete curriculums and little possibility to personalize educational pathways, which brings the negative results that all of us see,” she said.
Renewing Parents’ Role
For Di Martino and those she has worked with, one of the issues underlying the collapse of public-school quality is the gradual estrangement of parents from their children’s education and the replacement of the parents’ role with that of the state.
“The misleading notion of ‘compulsory school’ still makes parents believe they have no right in their children’s education, while it would be enough to read the [Italian] Constitution to know our rights and exercise them,” Di Martino said, calling Italian parents to rediscover the essential mission of “taking care of their children and see them growing up, playing their role as primary guides in this crucial phase of their children’s life.”
The recent emergence of initiatives and associations promoting home schooling has helped parents gain new awareness of their legal right to govern what their children are taught.
For many parents, the effort to find an alternative to public schools is fueled by the desire to renew their primary role in the education of their children, especially when they disagree with the direction of government-run institutions.
In particular, the spread of gender theory in school curriculums in recent years has strongly boosted parents’ decisions to have their children instructed at home or in home-school cooperatives, such as Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, which draws inspiration from the U.S. educational model. Although there are no official figures or studies on this new social resistance in Italy yet, the religious motivations of many parents for removing their children from public schools have been cited in virtually all articles on home schooling in the Italian press over the past five years.
“We cannot deny that today, school has become a place for secularist propaganda that, by systematically denying the 2,000-year roots of Christian culture, inevitably ends up flouting a priceless and unparalleled heritage,” said Santoro, who noted that the number of children joining Scuole Cattoliche Italiane is increasing every year.
The current ideological approach of many public schools, according to Santoro, is an open door to the totalitarian mindset of secular society that increasingly “sacrifices true culture in favor of experiments whose bad results can be seen by anyone.”
It is the same reason that led Maria Allen to continue home schooling after she left the U.S. to go back to Italy in 2007. While the desire to provide her children with a fully bilingual education in Italian and English influenced her decision, her Christian faith, as well as her husband’s, has been a decisive criterion.
“We wanted to give our children a more creationist education, made of sound Christian values. We didn’t want to transmit a too evolutionistic vision of life to them,” she said. “The public schools only talk about evolution, and we wanted to show them both sides of the coin, without removing God from the picture, from life.”
Beside home schooling or parental schools, Italian Christian families often decide to entrust the education of their children to religious organizations.
While home schooling is on the rise, Italy’s home-schoolers still face challenges sometimes stemming from the prejudices of public officials.
Although most families report a sensible tolerance from Italian local authorities, some have experienced hostility from those who see home schooling as an act of defiance toward the government. In these instances, bureaucratic obstacles become a deterrent measure against home-schooling families.
Gabriella Severance, an inhabitant of Albano (Latium) who has been educating one of her three children at home for the last four years, reported to the Register that she initially received a summons letter from social services, as well as from the head of the local public-school system, which she interpreted as an attempt at intimidation. She was then ordered to have her son take the admission test at the end of the academic year, which was not yet obligatory.
“We were fortunate enough to meet a woman at social services that took up the cudgels for us,” she told the Register.
According to those interviewed, initial prejudices are usually swept away by home-schoolers’ results on admission tests, which are generally more than satisfying. “Most of our students have very good grades and a high intellectual preparation; they are average — and sometimes above-average — compared to their peers who go to public schools,” said Santoro, speaking of the students of Scuole Cattoliche Italiane.
“Our friends in the U.S., where home schooling started 30 years ago, tell us that universities there have great feedback from students who enjoy a high level of sociability and an excellent preparation,” Santoro said. “It encourages us to pursue our initiatives.”
She said these results can be explained by the fact that such an educational system allows children to follow a more child-friendly schedule, in harmony with their needs, thus providing the opportunity to go deeper into the subjects they naturally excel in and more frequently do activities (such as visits to museums, weaving, reading and memorizing poetry) they would not normally have time to do in school.
Allen has seen the results of such a tailor-made education.
“My two daughters went to scientific high school, and the eldest graduated the equivalent of summa cum laude. It is the proof that I am not doing anything wrong,” she told the Register, noting that people are often inspired by her children’s testimony. “My children are very independent and mature for their age, and they always accomplish what they want with serenity.”
She added, “I wish that more parents could have the same opportunity of enrichment for their children.”
Solène Tadié is the
She writes from Rome.