Penny Wirton Schools


The Penny Wirton School was created in 2008 by teacher and writer Eraldo Affinati and his wife, Anna Luce Lenzi, who teaches Italian to immigrants. Today, there are more than 40 of these schools in Italy and Switzerland. The courses are provided for free, with volunteers supporting the teaching activity.  Most of the people following Italian courses at the Penny Wirton schools are immigrants from other countries and with different level of literacy. Due to different origin languages, it could either be easier or more difficult to learn the Italian language.

Narrative, origins and objectives of the initiative

What kind of project is this? Please give a short description (summary) of it.

The Penny Wirton school is not run as a traditional school, and there is more freedom in the method of teaching, in terms of attendance, learning pace and methodology. The main educational model is the direct relationship between the student and the teacher - the most important aspect is the human relationship, this allows a personalized approach and the possibility of respecting the learning pace of the students. Actually,  in the PW schools there are no classes, only pairs (in a 1:1 relation), where teachers and students are both voluntarily involved in the courses where they work out of their own free will.

The Penny Wirton (PW) schools provide introductory module textbooks that contain 25 lessons in the Italian language. The students have a personal card that registers the student's information on the progress during the course. This includes the following: the paired teacher of the student, the grades, and attended lessons. Usually, the migrants are looking for a job or they don't have a home, so it could be a challenge for them to attend regularly. Therefore only attendance is registered, not absence.

There is no specific methodological approach in the Penny Wirton schools.  However, these schools embrace a “pedagogic spirit” in which the most important factor is the relationship between the teacher and student. They sit side by side and "study" with each other mutually.

Teachers at Penny Wirton schools are considered “special people” by the chart of the school: they are volunteers who can be professional teachers or simply motivated volunteers but they need to be genuinely interested and mindful and have the ability to adapt to the personal circumstances of the students.

The PW school is entirely free of charge for the students. Individuals, groups or organizations who want to start a PW school should provide adequate space. No other support or assistance than the teaching of the Italian language is provided. Of course, another important lesson is the reciprocal respect of own dignity, which is needed to be involved in such process that is mostly guided by the context, in a continuous exchange of ideas and experiences.

The lessons take place in big rooms where no one is blamed for having difficulties in learning. The contents are also taught using pictures to stimulate conversation and games between students and teachers.

The volunteers are not requested to be trained teachers. It is, however, very important that they are welcoming in the relationship with the students; they can use games or storytelling, starting from migrants' life events to create a learning situation. Additionally, they should be open-minded for new and innovative ideas. Sometimes, volunteers are not comfortable in the educational approach and structure of the Penny Wirton schools and they quit. Most of the time, students and teachers are mutually satisfied. This is also the case if there is not a pairs available for the student or the teacher. However, students and teachers at the school bring other students and teachers, making the number of schools growing all around Italy.

Please tell us why, in general, this project is considered a successful one?

This project is considered a successful one due to the increasing numbers of PW schools opening in different regions in Italy: in the last decade, since the school opened in Rome in 2009, the number of cities with schools like this have grown to 42 cities in Italy and Switzerland.

And why would you consider it a grass-roots initiative?

The initiative began as an experiment with two teachers in 2008, completely for free and carried out only by volunteers. Eraldo and Luce, the two founders, are a couple and both of them are teachers.

The history of Penny Wirton school began in 2004 when Eraldo Affinati, teacher of Italian literature, realized the extreme need to help, in the most intensive way possible, the many adolescents (Moldavians, Afghans, Moroccans etc.) who used embryonic Italian among themselves, insufficient to transmit even in part their world of experiences and emotions. Since then he started looking for an educational space in the afternoon until he decided, in 2008, to found the Penny Wirton School, together with his wife Anna Luce Lenzi, asking for hospitality from the parish priest of San Saba, Fr. Stefano Fossi S. J.

For the next few years, the school worked in several different locations: parishes, schools, and cultural centers that offered hospitality for free. From November 2017 the Penny Wirton school in Rome is located in the premises granted by the Lazio Region Government in via Domenico De Dominicis 13 (Casal Bertone).

What challenges needed to be solved in this project?

The Penny Wirton schools aim to help migrants in acquiring a basic knowledge of the Italian language. For the volunteers' teachers, the schools is an opportunity to better understand the situations of the people with a migrant background.

Is this initiative based on any particular theoretical framework? Which one?

Unlike institutional schools, Penny Wirton adopts the program from the level of education and other factors of the student. These include: Is the student already literate? Does the student understand Italian but can not read it? Does the student not know a word of either Italian or English or French? Is the student an undergraduate or a graduate? The program relies on the ability of what the teacher can understand of their student, or at least take a guess, based on past experiences or stories. Then they can always adjust the shot.  The founders wrote two manuals just to implement this teaching model.

(Appendix) Is your intervention standing on its own or is it a part of a bigger and more holistic approach?

The intervention is standing on its own.

Please describe the group(s) intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Why has this group (have these groups) been chosen?

The Penny Wirton school is intended for immigrants from all over the world coming to Italy. The school is accessible for everyone, no matter their age and country of origin, from the Far East to Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe.

The school is intended for those who already know Italian and for those who cannot even say 'good morning' in Italian. Those who owns the alphabet and those who still has to conquer it. Those who write from right to left, who does not know what the striped notebook is and who speaks already both Arabic and English.

Many students are teenagers that came from the refugee facilities and are on the waiting list to be sent to a family home as "unaccompanied minors".

There are also many young people who are over the age of 18 and are waiting for the recognition of refugee status or asylum. Many women in the schools are involved as collaborators or family assistants; those arrived in Italy by marriage or reunification; some go to take their young children with them. The students of the schools include workers, caregivers, waiters, graduates from their country who want to learn the Italian language.

Some public schools make convention with the PW school, request linguistic support for boys and girls, who have just arrived in Italy and attend first-degree, secondary education, or even those born and raised in Italy, but still struggle with the Italian language; likewise, boys from the secondary high schools with different degrees of difficulty in using schoolbooks. These last two groups are noted for a particular ease: schooled, they are also supported by the presence of a family that makes their behavior easier and more serene. The nationalities of the participants now represent the whole world: the Philippines, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece, Syria, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia ... Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali , Senegal, Gambia, Togo, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry, Ghana, Nigeria ... Peru, Brazil, Cuba ...

Promiscuity is assured, with all the benefits that come from it: young and old are observed among themselves, they help each other when they can get used to living together and understanding each other.

Could you please tell us something about the relative size of the (of each) target group, within the school/university population, region and/or country?

Italy has 60.5 million inhabitants, more or less. Regular foreigners are just over 5 million, or 8 percent, while irregular foreigners are around 600.000.

Which social characteristics are taken into account and what is the geographical area covered?

The social characteristics that are taken into account are the socio-economic status often associated with the migrants and their linguistic level of Italian.

On which level is the project implemented?

The project is implemented at the school level: the first objective is to allow students to get the first compulsory school certificate in order to ask for Italian citizenship.

Please describe the political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Did the initiative have political support?

The PW schools don't have any political support; they are free and make use of volunteers.

How did it fit with local, regional or national policies?

The PW schools are a supplementary opportunity for migrants.

The Penny Wirton school does not replace the other institutional public and private schools but supports and tries to favor them. There are some students that also attend three schools at the same time, including the PW school. They come back willingly because they know they can find a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere.

Penny Wirton does not issue diplomas of legal value, but issues certificates of attendance to both students and volunteers: for both of them the certification are useful to enrich the personal curriculum. Penny Wirton schools prepare students for the exam necessary to officially certify the achievement of A2 level in Italian. The teachers of Penny Wirton evaluate when the students are able to present themselves to the examination.

The Penny Wirton school can sign agreements with public schools and universities: to be hosted, to accommodate students to be integrated, to offer volunteering opportunities to Italian students, to carry out projects in the field of work-related learning and to offer internship opportunities for undergraduates and graduates.

Who are the stakeholders supporting the initiative?

Different Schools and Associations all around Italy make an agreement, in order to accept the PW basic rules and way of operating and opening a new PW school in their town or village.

Some schools use the PW as an opportunity for their students to make work-related learning.

Are there particular demographic changes present that are influencing the project?

The increasing presence of migrants from all over the world in Italy: between 2014 and 2017 - the years in which the flow from North Africa was more active -  about 623 thousand people arrived in Italy by sea, only second to Greece that received 1 million of people in the same period.  The problem is not strictly connected with the numbers but in the way the migratory flow of these years has been managed: there isn't a reception system in place to manage these figures, some issues with European aid (see the failure of the Dublin reform and relocation) and with a population not very used to integration and coexistence with foreigners.

What is the institutional strategy and culture of the (educational) organization?

The main pillars of PW schools are 1) free and open to everyone 2) 1:1 teacher-student ratio/relationship

To what extent does the initiative have an influence on institutional policy (or potential influence) of the (educational) organization?

(Appendix) Is there public support for your initiative and the issue it addresses?

The Regional government of Lazio Region offers free space to the PW school in Rome: this is an example of public support to the initiative.

(Appendix) What other factors do you think have been important for the success of this initiative?

In Italy, minors could attend public schools for free and they are not required to produce any identity cards, but in regular school, you have to attend lessons in a class with around 20-25 students that usually don't share the same level of understanding and speaking Italian. A PW school is a supplementary school: students, not only minors, have the opportunity of a dedicated teacher and they can practice speaking Italian at no cost, without any obligations in terms of attendance.

Please describe the overall initiative design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Please describe the specific activities carried out.

The methodology used in the PW school is 1: 1 tutoring, without thinking about completions and evaluations, but always aiming for the maximum that can be seen as possible for the student: sometimes it will be little, sometimes very much.

The main component of the educational tools is the elaboration and enrichment that are the two textbooks written by Eraldo Affinati and Anna Luce Lenzi, with illustrations by Emma Lenzi, who are the founders of the PW School.

These two textbooks are educational tools including the result of direct observation and assessment of the learning process.

  • Italians we too. Italian course for foreigners (the blue book): 420 pages and 25 lessons summarize a complete Italian course, from illiteracy to the C2 level of the European reference, thanks also to the 25 tales of Eraldo Affinati that accompany each lesson (the red book);
  • Italians we too. The exercise book of the Penny Wirton school: 220 pages to reinforce the previous one with an enriched variety of exercises; in Appendix, preparation for the A2 Italian test for the EC residence permit, an illustrated author's story and all the keys or solutions of the proposed exercises.

What were the key roles (teacher, student, management team etc.) within the project?

The key roles in the Penny Wirton schools are the teachers and the students. The teachers are people who know Italian well and is available to collaborate for free offering on a continuous basis. The teachers of Penny Wirton schools are relaxed because they are in no hurry, no one and nothing chases them, but take the most reasonable steps for the person they teach.

A Penny Wirton teacher must be able to sometimes teach using no words since they often teach those who do not know the Italian language at all. The volunteers are therefore able to learn about the teaching materials to be used with the volunteer colleagues, so as to be interchangeable with them to replace them or be replaced in case of need.

What ideas, tools, theories, models, methodology (etc.) have been used to reach the goals?

The PW schools don't use any specific methodology, they use a "pedagogic spirit" that is based on the 1:1 teacher-student relationship. Some inspirations for the authors was Don Lorenzo Milani, a priest who is very famous in Italy that, through its books and practices, denounced the inequalities of a class-based educational system that advantaged the children of the rich over those of the poor.

What are the final revenues of the project?

The numbers of entities that are running or opening new PW schools in their cities.

Please describe if your project ensured its sustainability

If so, how did you ensure the short-term impact of the project?

The Penny Wirton School is completely self-funded and is supported by voluntary contributions from members, friends, and supporters. The PW School always accepts the spontaneous initiative of donors of all kinds.

All the materials used by PW schools, including books, notebooks, pencils, etc., have been acquired in this way.

The headquarters (parish, library, school, social center, bookshop ...) is offered free of charge, as happened in previous years at the Penny Wirton in Rome, hosted first by the Parish of San Saba from its birth for six years, then by a school or cultural centers. Thanks to this gratuity the PW School can proceed with its simple but safe means.

And how did you ensure the long-term impact of the project?

After 10 years the project still demonstrates its long-term sustainability - even though it is based on volunteers and donations.

Has your project been replicated elsewhere?

Yes, from the first PW school based in Rome, the model has spread to more than 40 cities in Italy and abroad.

Please tell us about the resources used in this initiative

What was the budget for the initiative?

There is no budget; the initiative is self-financing and contains expenses at a minimum; they accept donations, in cash and in educational materials.

How much did the initiative depend on volunteers?

The initiative depends 100% on volunteers

How were the costs perceived by the public/the sector/other stakeholders?

The costs are very low and sustained by donors that offer space for free.

To what extent did the initiative achieve its objectives?

Please describe the evidence to support the success of your initiative.

The initiative started with the aim of supporting young people in improving their knowledge of the Italian language: during the ten years of this project, it demonstrated to be sustainable and effective, and also replicate-able.

Did the intervention lead to any unintended (positive) outcomes?

All the outcomes are unexpected and welcome, they are all positive - whether it's an A0 certification, an A1 or a B2. We do not set ourselves levels to be reached; our program is everything that can be done for each person, according to their circumstances and possibilities.

What indicators (quantitative and qualitative) have you measured to demonstrate success?

The success is migrant people attending the courses.

They use the progress in the textbook to measure learning. The Italian manual, which is divided into “Anticamera” (for those who cannot read and write) and in 25 lessons: every two months a registration is done (in the database that collects data for each day) at what stage of the manual is each student working (A = he is still learning to read, section 5/25: he is learning, i.e. at lessons number 5 of the manual he learned to use the present indicative of irregular verbs, etc.).

(Appendix) How did you evaluate/monitor this intervention?

They have a database in which they register the progression of the students, based on the textbooks adopted in the schools. Moreover, they have the personal stories of their students, i.e. the one of the illiterate lady from the Philippines who started to write a traditional story of her country or the student who studied to become a lawyer.