The Minister’s Ceiling to “Foreign Born” Students in Italian Schools


On January 8, the day after the racist shootings of African immigrant workers in Calabria (and the ensuing protests and lootings)

ByPaolo Manasse

Mrs. Maria Stella Gelmini, the Italian Education Minister, disclosed a circular letter to the public school’s principals, regulating the presence of “foreign students” in Italian schools: as of next year the share of “foreign” pupils in a class should not  exceed 30% — Mrs. Gelmini made clear that pupils born in Italy, but lacking the Italian nationality, were not to be considered as “foreigners”.  This, she argued, was deemed necessary in order to facilitate the “integration” of foreign students, and in order to prevent that their learning difficulties (with language, presumably) negatively affect Italians’ proficiency. Compared to a previous racist proposal of the Northern League, an influential partner in government, aiming at creating separate classes for “foreign” students, this initiative appears a notable improvement. Yet, it is quite representative of the Berlusconi “style” of policy-making: just state the goal (fiat school!), no need to clarify how and by what means to implement it. Examples abound: the “brief trial” law, allegedly made to benefit Mr. Berlusconi and later declared anti-constitutional, simply stated that a trial should not last for more than two years, or be extinguished; the Prime minister’s exhortations to “be optimistic and consume” during the crisis, in the wake of a fall in GDP exceeding 5% in 2009, lacked any fiscal stimulus from policy.

According to official figures  the recent immigration waves have raised the presence of “foreign” students to approximately 6.4% of the total; foreign pupils are concentrated mainly in primary schools; in the North-Eastern regions and in Emilia Romagna (11.8%). Interestingly, there is a large heterogeneity of foreign presence among provinces and cities, with peaks in Milan, Mantua, and Prato (around 16%). In order to highlight the sort of implementation problems that may plague Mrs. Gelmini’s ceiling, consider the following simple example. Consider a town where there are two schools, A and Z (or two neighbouring towns, each with one school). In school A, classes, attended by 20 students, have a low percentage of foreigners (in purple in Figure 1), 1 in 20 (5%); in school B, foreigners are the majority, 13 in 20 (65%). The “thinking” behind Mrs. Gelmini’s ceiling is (presumably) that the quality of learning, keeping constant the teacher/pupil ratio, improves the more homogeneous are the classes.

Figure 1: Class in A and Class in Z

Solution 1: everyone moves.

In this case, the optimal solution, in the absence of mobility costs, is to split equally foreign (14 in all) and Italian students (26) among schools, see Figure 2, by creating in both classes with 7 foreigners and 13 Italians. Is this the logic of Mrs. Gelmini’s ceiling? Note that this solution would require transferring 6 foreign students (per class) from school Z to school to A, and 6 Italians from school A to school Z.

Figure 2: Identical Classes in school A and Z

Here are some of the problems which would arise: 1) transport costs: every morning a large fraction of students (30% in the example) should be moved (forward and backward): at what cost and who pays? 2) Equal rights: according to what criteria will the “movers” be chosen, without violating the equality of their rights? 3) Abandonment of public school: will (the parents of) Italians attending school A accept to be moved to Z? How many will not opt instead for a private school?

Solution 2: Only foreigners move

An alternative solution, perhaps implicit in the “philosophy” of the measure, is that only with aliens should be “reallocated” (assuming that this choice does not violate their rights). In our example, in order to obtain a nearly uniform composition between schools, 9 foreigners should be moved from school Z to school A. (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Reallocation of only foreign born pupils from Z to A

Compared to the first solution, this saves in transportation costs. However it would run into a new problem: the transfer of teachers. Clearly, only 11 pupils per class now remain in the Z school, compared to 29 in A, so that teachers must be transferred accordingly. Otherwise, the quality of learning in A would suffer (and that in Z improve).  Finally, how should the ceiling apply in municipalities (Prato, Mantua), where most schools have a very large concentration of foreign students? Mrs. Gelmini, so far, has been silent on these issues.

A legitimate question then comes to mind: instead of spending resources in moving students to and fro, would it not be preferable to use them in order to increase the number of teachers in those schools where pupils have extra needs? (also published in and my blog,