Serving an internship period is recognized as a successful educational tool and, indirectly, as a means to fight unemployment. Still, in order for it to be successful, a pupil should be adequately accompanied by a facilitator or counselling entity. Without an educating individual, there is no chance for any successful education. This case study illustrates the practice at Cometa Formazione VET school, for 14-18 years old students.
(Article realized for the Erasmus+ project Trio2Success)
Cometa’s experience in internship and placement is part of a very extensive and articulate context and represents an attempt to address the issue of school dropping out of high school and youth unemployment. Both these phenomena are closely connected and are the result of political, economic and institutional processes to which Europe has long been trying to find a solution, thus requiring member states to come up with strategies that respond and adapt to current times.
As a matter of fact, back in 2010, the European Commission introduced a new growth strategy named Europe 2020: a strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, whose purpose is to achieve growth that is smart (through development of knowledge and innovation), sustainable (based on a greener economy, more efficient resource management) more competitive and inclusive, aimed at promoting employment, social and territorial cohesion, thus setting some very specific targets. With regards to social inclusion, Europe intends to decrease the school dropout rate to less than 10% and to increase the rate of newly graduates to higher than 40% and to achieve an employment rate of 75%.
Within the area of education, the two major goals are therefore to fight dropping out of high school and university and to include youngsters in a labor market that is on the way to become increasingly more complex and competitive.
In order to ensure the implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy by each Member State, the UE Commission suggested turning EU goals into national targets and pathways, thus adapting them to country-specific circumstances; for this reason, each Member State set its domestic targets in the medium-term range and is required to present a yearly National Reform Plan to the Commission1.
Back in 2000, with the Lisbon strategy, the explicitly declared goal was already “to turn the EU into the most competitive and dynamic economy of knowledge by 2010”. Although these agreements cover the most diverse fields of economic policy, the area of education and school is identified as the backbone of a more competitive economic system.
Another major phenomenon that Europe has been dealing with for years includes youth unemployment, that is the inability or, for some, the lack of possibility to find a job for young people aged between 14 and 24 years. Eurostat data reveals that the average youth unemployment rate in Europe is around 22% whereas in Italy is 37.9% as of December 2015.
Youth unemployment is a not only an economic evil but also a cultural one and it bears major psychological consequences on new generations. It has multiple causes: social, economic, political.
According to most current literature, one of the solutions is to redesign the school as a place delivering competences that are valuable for a competitive and complex labor market such as today’s one. Hence, the school is expected to get closer to the business world, to speak with it and get an understanding of what is required of today’s students to become tomorrow’s working individuals.
As a confirmation of this idea, the European Commission has recently issued a publication under the following headline A new skills agenda for Europe, whereby acquisition and development of skills are discussed as major topic, as well as skills mismatches, productivity and growth, digital transformation of work, quality of education and relevance of certified competences that are learned through non-formal education.
For this reason, the key points along which the European strategic plan develops include: «1. Improving the quality and relevance of skills formation; Making skills and qualification more visible and comparable; 3. Improving skills intelligence and information for better career choices»2
Like all other European countries, Italy too is trying to address the emergency of dropouts and unemployment through various national and regional projects. As part of the strategy, the open-book La Buona Scuola was published in September 2014 by the government chaired by PM Renzi. The idea is promoted to establish «the possibility of completing learning pathways in working environments […] and the organizations hosting the pupils shall see such learning pathways as an opportunity and not a burden». Operationally speaking, the concept of work-related learning, or Job-School rotation, (Alternanza Scuola – Lavoro) was introduced as mandatory for the last three years of technical high school students and four years for vocational school students. For a total amount of learning/job hours of at least 200 per year; the possibility to market goods and services or to perform “Educational Business Activity”. Furthermore, apprenticeship has been re-launched as an educational tool. Law nr. 107 dated 13 July, 2015 introduced some of these innovations at national level.
However, vocational education and training centers have been established in various regions ever since 2002/20033; these are organizations licensed by the Regional Government to release a professional qualification that is nationally recognized and equivalent at least to second level education in Europe. The establishment of such VET centers is intended to address the issue of school dropouts through a learning methodology that is “individualized” as much as possible. They also address the mismatch between school and the labor market through the use of practical workshops and the possibility to perform internships in local community businesses.
The topic of job-school rotation is all-encompassing as it focuses on different cultural, social and economic aspects and references.
Socially, the job-school rotation concept is considered as a tool to fit young people in the labor market, as pointed out in various communications by the European Commission. The first major theoretical reference for vocational training is therefore the theory of human capital which sets its attention on the relationship between extending knowledge assets on the one hand and social and economic development on the other hand. Knowledge enhancement is therefore seen as a production factor and the return on investment in training and education translate in income/revenues. Any innovation, technology, organization is backed by this human factor which demands to rethink the very same concept of production, investment and public expenditure. The crucial point for an economic system and society is the increase of this factor that cannot be reduced to material resources only.
Italy responded to the European requirements with the introduction of the job-school rotation program as the focus of a number of reforms that are still being discussed nationwide. The job-school rotation concept was first introduced with Art. 4 of Law dated 28 March 2003, no. 53, whereby the idea was not about a new “schooling” tool but rather to pave the way for a new methodology that allows to bring the world of the school and the labor market closer together through classes, workshops, work experiences. This theme has been extensively referenced to in the document La Buona Scuola issued by the Renzi Government.
The job-work rotation program is at the heart of other major topics, first of all the one about competences/skills. Italian school has gradually been exposed to the idea that as the person is a whole unit, learning can indeed happen in every area of life; as it is a test, the working environment forces a person faced with problems to look for solutions; it is therefore a privileged setting to acquire knowledge and situational skills, and hence to become competent.
Within such context, the pedagogic theory of learning by doing is extremely meaningful as it turns thoughts about an action into a way to gain knowledge by the professional who looks at himself/herself in action trying to understand and improve the rationale behind his/her actions. The practice of thinking is a set of methods that facilitate drawing knowledge out of experience but also help build experience-based knowledge. There are many theoretical reference frameworks: J. Dewey’s pragmatism, epistemology of D. Schon’s practice, experiential learning by D. A. Kolb and many others.
As far as educational support care in a company is concerned, there are many regulations and cultural policies that attach importance to the tutoring function. There is plenty of insights into the role of the company tutor, whereas the function of the school/training tutor is less contextualized theoretically. Current literature doesn’t offer much on this topic, however it is possible to make reference to some authors, such as Ornella Scandella who is in charge of a study unit on the tutoring function and Anna Rezzara, as well as to some inserts in Isfol journals published in Europe, whereby the tutor is defined as the liaison profile that allows for real unity between the labor market and the school through the practice of thinking/meditation, which the job-school rotation program only introduces as a learning methodology.
It is fundamental to make reference to the father of psychoanalysis, S. Freud and his reading of adolescence. Many people have tried reading contemporary youth-related phenomena through his written works and tried to identify and define the role of adults and the school within the complexity of adolescence age. With such cultural background, the value of the educational support care during internship is to be understood as a way to respond to the adolescent need for stakeholders that help him/her mirror and confirm images of his/her own identity and feedback evaluations as well as decision-making and judgment criteria.
Tutoring and placement activities in the Cometa model
Oliver Twist – Cometa Formazione scs, is a vocational education and training center pursuing the specific aim to educate 14-18 years old students to practice a profession. Cometa’s offer includes VET courses and experimental learning pathways against school dropout phenomenon through the rotation between school and work aimed at placing the student in the job market. VET programs include three courses:
- Hotel and food services: certified dining room and bar service specialist;
- Woodworking services – certified facility maintenance operator;
- Art works services – certified textile artifacts operator.
Ever since their second year, students make an important internship experience in local companies for an overall period of 2 months a year. During the academic year 2015/2016, 357 internships were activated, thus involving 233 local companies working in the three professional areas catered by the school: textile industry, woodworking and food services. Each training period is backed by extensive planning, monitoring and evaluation efforts. Players involved in the school are the manager of the community-school relations whose task is to take care of the relations with the local companies and ensure relational continuum between them and the training tutor.
The tutor is a function required by the Regional regulations and is represented in each vocational training school. His/Her task is to take care of the job-school rotation. At Oliver Twist school, this function mostly fills an educational role. The tutor is the reference point for one or two classes (on average 25 pupils per class) and he/she supports the educational pathway of each student, thus trying to put together a “tailor-made” educational pathway through activities and projects aimed at ensuring that each student achieves successful education and excellence. In this educational relationship with the student, one of the activities to be completed is the rotation between work experience and school attendance.
Oliver Twist school devised a standard format for job-school rotation agreements that is now part of its CRM program and requires the school tutor to populate the fields listed below:
- Master data of the host (company name and registered office address, VAT ID code + full name of the legal representative including his/her date, place of birth and social security ID code);
- Training period (from… to….);
- Duration (total number of hours);
- Place of operations;
- Number of agreement (with date);
- Number of in-house protocol.
The training project is always developed by the school tutor in co-partnership with the company tutor. The project document is then regularly shared with the school manager in charge of relations with the community before being submitted to the approval of the relevant stakeholders (School legal representative, Company legal representative, pupil). Following a very first interview between the school tutor and the company tutor, all the details of the individualized training project are then finalized, such as:
- Master data of the promoter of the internship period (school);
- Master data of the host;
- Start and end date of internship;
- Total number of internship hours;
- Daily timetable indicating the highest number of hours per week;
- Place where internship will take place;
- Resources – direct or indirect – to be used in the project (school tutor, company tutor, manager of relations with the community, teaching staff);
- Educational goals to be accomplished;
- Competences relating to the professional profile;
- Main tasks the pupil will be assigned to;
- Insurance policies stipulated by the school;
- Competency evaluation process (periodical visits and final evaluation questionnaire by the company);
- Any risks specific to the tasks and relevant PPE required by the Risk Assessment (DVR) issued by the company;
- Obligations by the trainee during the training period.
Throughout the entire internship, the pupil will be supported by the school tutor who will periodically visit the host company. The focus of such visits is to establish a direct contact with the pupil and the company tutor, but also to conduct separate meetings with one of the two individuals for monitoring purposes and also to identify any issues that may arise during the internship period. The internship experience may be divided into three phases: planning, provision, evaluation.
Phase 1: planning
As part of the planning phase, a company is selected for each pupil based on a set of criteria shared with all the players: school management, tutor, company manager and teachers.
The first selection criterion is an educational one: in order for the pupil to learn how to perform his/her working tasks, the pupil will need a local master/instructor that the school tutor identifies as the company tutor; he/she is responsible for teaching not only professional competences and skills but also competences that are useful to cope with the working environment, the so-called soft skills. To complete this task, the company tutor is required to share the educational mandate required of the school, be prone to educate and teach, be able to establish an adequate relationship with the pupil. Hence, it is important to select an educational partner in the company who will be able to take care of the student in an authoritative and effective manner.
In the course of the planning phase the school tutor conducts some orientation interviews with the class pupils with the aim to discuss and raise awareness about their strengths and weaknesses, the goals each pupil sets him/herself at various stages of the internship, preferences in terms of area (e.g. food services: bar, dining room, kitchen…) and location (hotel, bar, restaurant…) and time requirements. The orientation interview closes by sharing the goals of the job-school rotation program. Matching the pupil profile with the company profile only takes place after talking with the school person in charge of maintaining relations with the companies. Aptitudes and logistic needs are key to complete the matching process.
All orientation interviews ultimately allow to identify the expectations of the pupils so that he/she can receive help in increasing his/her awareness of abilities and limitations. Giving pupils the opportunity to voice their opinion helps them feel empowered in the experience they will make and find their own motivations. Internship is not about something a school decides to implement but rather an individual opportunity for personal and human growth. In order for the students to take on a leading role in this process, Cometa tries to locate companies near their home and easily reachable through available transportation means. That way, the decision to go to work depends on nobody else but the student.
Moreover, feedback from vocational teachers plays a very important role and, depending on the competences the student is weaker at, a company is located where he/she can learn how to master them. For this reason, the learning criterion is a relevant point of reference.
As part of the planning phase, an interview with the training course coordinator is also conducted to approve the selection of companies and pupils.
Upon completion of this last step, the pupil goes to the company for a real job interview. The pupil is trained on how to participate in a job interview in the classroom, by enhancing his/her communication skills with simulations, usually held by the personnel recruitment and selection manager of the school. The job interview in the company is attended by the tutor who acts as a facilitator; company tutor, school tutor and the company share the training project for the relevant pupil, that is job description, timetable, target skills, requirements, potentiality and possible pain points.
Following the job interview, the tutor’s task is to devise all documents necessary to start the internship: risk assessment form of the company, training project and formal agreement.
Phase 2: the curricular internship
From the start date and throughout the internship provision phase, the tutor is in charge of monitoring the job-school rotation program to confirm the educational value of the internship and of the educational support care. This monitoring phase too is completed synergically with the manager of community relations who takes care of involving company tutors, collecting the needs of the working organization identified as the host of the internship, facilitating communications with the company. The term educational support care implies a multitude of activities aimed at leading the student to make an experience that is truly educational and delivering both professional and human growth.
To such end, the tutor pays monitoring visits to the company twice a week, depending on the various situations. Monitoring takes place through interviews with the company tutor who shares the acquired skills, gaps to be bridged, pain points and difficulties of various character experienced by the intern. Once again, the tutor acts as a facilitator between the pupil and the working environment, thus referring the pupil to the judgment of the company tutor.
Student interviews also take place twice a week with the aim to help them become aware of their resources, abilities, limitations and uncertainties as they emerge throughout the internship. Another task for the tutor in this phase is to monitor documents, that is to say the activity log (to be completed daily by the company tutor and the pupil) to keep track of days of attendance, working time (by law it cannot be higher than the established number of working hours) and activities performed. Should any problem emerge in the company, the tutor’s task is to support the pupil and jointly find a solution, so that he/she can continue the internship under the best possible conditions.
The school Oliver Twist – Cometa Formazione scs made the choice to have pupils back in classroom once a week for a day to allow them to incorporate the experience in the company; the tutor is responsible for arranging such day. The tutor is also required to deliver two hours of teaching to be organized based on the findings from the company. As part of the standard activities to be completed on the back-in-classroom day, pupils are required to fill up a daily logbook which will be used to draw up a final internship report and hence become part of the qualification requirements for the third academic year. This activity prompts pupils to give some thoughts about their operations, to become aware of what they are learning and how to improve as they are expected to review/reflect upon their actions in order to make them even more effective and efficient.
The purpose of the back-in-classroom days is to provide support to pupils during this rotational program and help them enhance maturity and awareness of working and soft skills to be acquired and required of the labor market.
Another key activity is the coordination of the teachers: sharing the situations of every single pupil and the activities they perform in the assigned company allows to experience a consistent project that originates from “doing” things and gives the possibility to see students regularly in the back-in-classroom days to discuss their experience. This “bridging” role between school and company ensures continuity and an educational added value to the internship despite it being far from its usual school dimension.
Phase 3: evaluation of the internship
During the evaluation phase, as the manager of community relations takes care of receiving feedback from the company and availability for future collaboration, the school tutor will draw up the internship satisfaction questionnaire for the company and the pupil, check and store the attendance logbook of each student and arrange for individual interviews with pupils and business tutors. The interview with the business tutor shall specifically try to explore any possibility for a potential future job of the pupil in the company, whereas the interview with the student allows to formulate a summary report about the experience and to prompt continuous commitment at school. For this reason, it is crucial for students to share their experiences as trainees with the rest of the class and for teaching activities to be coordinated after completion of the internship.
Upon completion of this process, it is required to devise an overall summary report both concerning the entire class and each pupil. In addition to the mere bureaucratic-administrative aspects, the evaluation phase is key to successfully redesign the educational pathway of the students.
At the end of the three-year vocational training program, Oliver Twist school offers the services of a job placement office. This service originates from the need to stand by the students until they’re finally introduced in the labor market. Much is invested in curricular internship programs, then some pupils are called back by the companies where they completed their job-school rotation whereas others are helped with an active job search program which translates in a few classes to learn how to write a curriculum vitae, to register to job search portal, to take stock of acquired skills and handover of CVs to some selected companies. Moreover, thanks to European funds of Youth Employment Initiative, such as Youth Guarantee, the school provides and submits the profiles of former students (who are still job seekers) to partner companies, thus trying to accomplish the right match between supply and demand. These efforts have ultimately resulted in successful placements in the last few years.
82 pupils majored in the food service educational program in the academic year 2014/2015. 46 of them decided to go on studying, 3 moved to another country, and 33 were job-seekers as of July 2015.
Out of these 33 former pupils, 29 were able to find a job as of June 2016 and are now working under a regular employment contract.
37 job placements were successfully completed in 2015/2016 alongside with 80 extra-curriculum internships activated for current and former pupils of the school.
Reflections on the model
In mere terms of a definition, the educational internship is an active policy to foster direct contact between the host and the trainee aimed at facilitating enhanced knowledge, professional skills and job placement or replacement. The core dimension of the internship relationship is to deliver vocational training to the trainee. Whilst the company’s obligation is to provide training/education, the promoter’s obligation (i.e. the school) is to monitor the progress of training and to finally certify the outcome in terms of skills of the trainee.
In its Communication number 173 dated 18 April, 2012 under the title Towards a job-rich recovery , the European Commission provides the following definition of internship: «A work experience with limited duration including an educational element (within or outside of the curriculum). Purpose of such internships is to facilitate transition from school to work, thus providing an opportunity for practical experience and suitable knowledge to complete theoretical education»4.
Internship may take on a fundamental relevance for the purpose of promoting job placement of young people, thus bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and skills required at work. However, this case study clearly points out that the experience of curricular internship may not be successful in the absence of: an educational plan tailored upon the pupil’s needs; a company tutor, that is an adult and expert profile who stands by the trainee; a school tutor who constantly takes care of the student’s learning process; interviews between those who take care of the pupil at school and at work, care of the relationships and continuity of collaboration with the local community companies.
The resulting educational partnership between the business area expert (company tutor) and the school tutor allows the school to draw up educational projects that are increasingly more aligned and responding to the real labor market needs, thus preventing subject matters taught in class from sounding as lifeless words whose relevance and meaningfulness cannot be grasped by the pupils. Pupils’ thirst for knowledge is prompted on the field, in the company, once they’re faced with real problem-solving demands.
In consideration of the strategic role played by the company with regards to the success of an internship, a great deal of attention and care is to be attached to the relationship with host companies. The company is clearly aware they can rely on the school tutor and the manager of community relations for any need.
The school and the company jointly evaluate the opportunity for any educational actions whenever needed and share all perspective corrective actions to the pupil pathway.
This aspect is very important because companies turn out to be more productive and effective (and motivated to overcome any pain points) whenever they don’t feel alone in moving forward with the educational relationship with the pupils.
The same type of support is also ensured to the trainee who can rely, at any given time, on the key role of the school tutor, not only during weekly visiting hours but first and foremost on the weekly back-in-class day or during extra-time appointments scheduled with the tutor outside of the internship hours.
In the beginning, the school sets a minimum number of monitoring visits per each pupil/company (once a week). It is then up to the school tutor to evaluate any need to increase the frequency of monitoring visits or decrease them according to the agreement with managers and company tutors.
The great added value by the tutor lies in the ability to review/re-process the experience made in the company, thus standing by him/her as they develop a more conscious, less emotional or fear-driven judgment.
Experience has indeed taught us that many pain points encountered particularly in the first internship week are then solved whenever the authority of the school tutor takes action and, with the help of information by the company, he/she is able to re-focus correctly the distorted perception of the pupil, thus motivating him/her to work on themselves and be themselves in the company.
Based on this case study, it is clear how two fundamental conditions should be met in order for a real job-school rotation to be completed. First of all, the legal framework and the teaching plan have to provide for the possibility to perform periods of work in a company without them being imposed from the top as part of a teaching plan that does not consider them part of the curriculum. Second of all, it is necessary to arrange for an adequate time that allows the trainee to really learn a profession or, at least, its key basic skills, and the company to train the pupil adequately. In the absence of such conditions, there is no real rotation between work and school, especially if you treat it not only as an active policy but also as a process to train and educate a person in its whole unity.
Another key feature of a high quality internship is the presence of planning, monitoring and evaluating individuals. This is to say that both the host organization as well as the promoting one are required to engage and train individuals that qualify to perform tutoring activity, that is the founding pillar for a successful school-work rotation program. The school is required to appoint a tutor for an average number of 50 students a year who will experience internship at different times in groups of 25 members each time; that is someone with adequate educational skills and able to facilitate learning in experiential situations, to stand the course during difficulties and to support students so that the internship experience becomes a real opportunity for education of the person. Moreover, a tutor should be able to act as an interface with the business community, share a common language based on which collaboration opportunities may flourish.
In addition to knowledge of the company organization, other core competences of the tutor include: joint planning skills, relational and communication skills under complex circumstances, teamwork with different institutions. The company, on the other hand, is required to provide a company tutor who is employed under a certain type of employment contract (legal requirement) and is equipped with appropriate professional skills and is, obviously, available and willing to share a mandate whose nature is first and foremost educational.
For these very reasons, partnering with the local community companies is a key factor just like identifying a person who first takes care of selecting such companies and then manages relations with them effectively.
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