Italy’s education system has faced funding constraints for many years. Official data from ISTAT (the Italian national statistical office) shows that public spending in the sector fell from 5.4% of GDP in 1992 to 4.4% in 2000 and has continued to fall, reaching 3.8% in 2017.
Since the largest expenditure in education is teachers’ salaries, it is no surprise to find that the fall in school expenditure has been accompanied by a reduction in the total number of teachers. According to ISTAT, and focusing on secondary schools only, there were 326,000 secondary school teachers in 1992. This had fallen to 300,000 in 2000 and reached a low of 248,000 in 2013. Since then, numbers have risen a little.
Over this period there has also been a moderate reduction in the number of students, but not enough to compensate for the fall in the number of teachers – the student-to-teacher ratio in secondary schools increased from 8.8 in 1992 to 9.9 in 2013.
Managing the education budget has also involved limiting the hiring of new permanent teachers. Instead, new teachers have been offered fixed-term contracts of up to one year’s duration. Data on the number of teachers with permanent contracts are only available for recent years, but the data from the education ministry show that the number of teachers on permanent contracts fell from 231,000 in 2006 to 211,000 in 2011. This fall in the number of teachers was not achieved through firing or lay-offs but rather by a reduction in hires to replace retiring teachers. As a consequence, average teacher age has risen – in secondary schools, the mean age rose from 46 years in 1998 to 49 in 2003 and reached 53 in 2015 (data from Ministero dell’istruzione 1999, 2008, OECD 2017).
When permanent posts do become vacant, they are first offered to existing permanent staff, meaning older teachers sort into the most desirable teaching positions.1 Although the current government is seeking to address this issue with a new effort to expand permanent teacher positions, this allocation system results in an uneven distribution of older teachers across schools. Pupil attainment in those schools may suffer if older teachers are less motivated than younger teachers or if older teachers lack the pedagogical skills taught to more recent teacher cohorts.
Prior studies confirm that school quality matters for student attainment in Italy. Falling pupil-teacher ratios played an important role in improved educational attainment between the end of WWII and the late 1980s (Brunello and Checchi 2005). Managerial practices implemented by headmasters have improved students’ maths test scores, with leadership capacity and monitoring activities of school processes being particularly effective (Di Liberto et al. 2015).
Clean-cut results on the role of teacher quality are rare in Italy, but there is evidence that teacher motivation matters. Teacher career satisfaction is positively associated with reading attainment among Italian fourth-grade students (Alivernini et al. 2010), and Boarini (2009) argues that poor motivation of Italian teachers is one of the causes of poor performance on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests among Italian students compared with other OECD countries.
We consider whether the system of allocating permanent teacher contracts to older teachers has been detrimental to pupil attainment, as captured by graduation marks at the end of the upper-secondary cycle from schools in Tuscany. Our data are for the school year 2017/2018. Controlling for several characteristics of schools, students, and teachers, we focus on the role of average teacher age by school.
Treating teachers’ age as exogenous to the schools they teach at, we find no association between teachers’ age and student performance. However, this may be because the Italian teacher allocation system permits older teachers to choose permanent jobs in better schools.
To disentangle this confounding factor, we use an instrumental variable approach with distance from an urban centre as the instrument. Older teachers tend to prefer schools close to urban centres, but as we condition on pupil attainment on entry to the school, the location of the schools should not have a direct effect on the performance of students. Once we account for this, we find having a higher proportion of older teachers in a school negatively affects students’ performance.
To put the magnitude of the effect into perspective, according to our estimates, a six-year increase in the average age of teachers (roughly similar to the increase that has occurred in the last 20 years) leads to a reduction of one standard deviation in the mean graduation mark. This result holds even when we control for teacher tenure at the school, which itself has a small but positive effect: teacher experience is valuable for pupil attainment, but teacher age is not.
There may be several explanations as to why older teachers reduce pupil attainment. Lower motivation in older teachers could be one (as motivation was found to matter in pupils’ attainment). But it is also possible that younger cohorts are simply more qualified – teachers holding a PhD were quite rare years ago but are more common nowadays – or that they are better skilled when it comes to using new teaching technologies.
In addition to inducing an uneven distribution of older and thus poorer teachers across schools, by limiting teacher opportunities to obtain permanent contracts – particularly in the ‘better’ schools chosen by older workers – the teacher allocation system may be discouraging the entry of younger aspirants, further increasing average age.
These findings have implications for public policy in Italy since they suggest that the system of teacher hiring and allocation work to the detriment of pupils, with older teachers adversely affecting pupil attainment. The government has not done enough to recruit younger cohorts of teachers into permanent posts, instead filling vacant positions using temporary contracts and potentially discouraging young aspiring workers from entering the teaching profession.
The current government has finally acknowledged these problems and started a large public recruitment drive to hire permanent teachers. About 65,000 new teachers are being selected at the time of the writing. These posts have attracted applications from 500,000 jobseekers, challenging the system to deal with the large queue of aspiring young people that has formed in recent years. It may be preferable to design a system which does not result in young people queueing for permanent teacher contracts, for example, by offering periodical intakes of new teachers.
Aliverini, F, S Manganelli, E Vinci and I Di Leo (2010), “An evaluation of factors influencing reading literacy across Italian 4th grade students”, US-China Education Review 7(5): 88–93.
Boarini, R (2009), “Towards better schools and more equal opportunities for learning in Italy”, Economics Department Working Paper No. 727, OECD.
Brunello, G and D Checchi (2005), “School quality and family background in Italy”, Economics of Education Review 24: 563–77.
Bryson, A, L Corsini and I Martelli (2020), “Teacher allocation and school performance in Italy”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 13669.
Di Liberto, A, F Schivardi and G Sulis (2015), “Managerial practices and student performance”, Economic Policy 30(84): 683–728.
Ministero dell’istruzione (1999), La scuola statale: sintesi dei dati anno scolastico 1998/1999.
Ministero dell’istruzione (2008), La scuola statale: sintesi dei dati anno scolastico 2007/2008.
OECD (2017), “Education at a glance: OECD indicators 2017”, graph “D5.1. Average age of teachers by education level (2015)”.
1 Vacant positions that are not claimed by permanent teachers are then offered as fixed-term positions and assigned according to the ranking of aspirant teachers who have not yet passed the public selection for permanent hiring but have registered as available to fill in those positions.