Italy announces 2017 PON funding for language studies

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Italian government has announced a new round of PON scholarship funding for 2017
  • The programme will provide funding of €45,000 per group for groups of up to 15 secondary school students to pursue language studies in Erasmus+ destinations
  • Each group will have three weeks of language study abroad, with 20 instructional hours per week
  • In previous years, PON has supported language study abroad for up to 30,000 Italian juniors; roughly 80% of these students have opted to study English

After more than a year of silence on the future of the PON scholarship scheme, the Italian government has just released details for 2017. The Programma Operativo Nazionale (PON) is a broadly based, European Union-funded investment programme that aims to strengthen the Italian education system and to promote equitable access to high-quality education throughout the country.

The programme draws on a €3 billion funding commitment from the EU, including a €2.2 billion allocation to support additional learning opportunities for both teachers and students and a €800 million investment in school facilities and equipment.

This funding is in place for the period 2014-2020, and the components targeted to students explicitly support short-term language study abroad for juniors. More specifically: for Italian secondary school students who wish to pursue language studies in another EU country which is also a participant in the Erasmus+ mobility programme.

In 2014, an estimated 30,000 Italian students went abroad through the PON programme. Roughly eight in ten chose to study English, another 14% French, and 5% Spanish, with the balance opting for German or other languages. That strong orientation toward English study resulted in roughly 20,000 PON-supported students in the UK in 2014.

The programme petered out after that, with a relatively small number of student groups going abroad in 2015 (and mostly as a result of funding approvals that carried over from 2014). Although another programme cycle was keenly anticipated in 2016, it did not materialise and this lag underscores the importance of the new funding round announced this month.

PON 2017

For this year, the PON will provide for groups of 15 students per secondary school, with funding of €3,000 per student or €45,000 per group. The programme is open to students aged 16-to-19-years, with participants selected via internal competition for spaces within each school.

The grant provides for three weeks of language study abroad, with 20 contact hours per week. This includes testing fees, and, in a notable change for 2017, all participants are required to have a minimum level of proficiency in the target language. The programme now requires that all students test at B1 level within the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) in order to be eligible to join a PON group. All group participants are expected to reach a B2 level within the CEFR by the end of their studies – thus the requirement for testing for every PON group at the beginning and end of their studies.

Secondary schools are selected via a competitive application process administered by the Italian government, and this year’s application deadline is 26 May. There are typically two or three parties to each application for PON support: the Italian secondary school, a local agency that organises the programme and provides local and logistics support (including liability insurance coverage), and the language training provider abroad.

While the secondary school might not specifically reference a given provider abroad in their PON application, they are expected to at least indicate the Erasmus+ participating destination where the training will take place.

Partnering up

This model highlights the need for active collaboration between language training providers, Italian agents, and secondary schools in building an effective PON application and programme. A related news release from English UK highlights the importance of the programme for ELT providers in Britain and encourages schools to get involved this year. “Quite a few centres were waiting for the scheme to open last year and it was very disappointing when it didn’t – it’s an excellent opportunity for members which can meet the criteria of both taking juniors and being open beyond the summer,” said English UK Chief Executive Sarah Cooper.

Also in the UK, Trinity College London has been actively engaged with the Italian government in coordinating PON programmes for this year. In order to facilitate links between Italian high schools and Trinity-approved test centres in the UK and Ireland, the college has begun to compile a list of interested ELT providers on its website. “We’d encourage centres to start taking action on this now if they’re keen to take part, as the closing date for school projects is Friday 26 May,” said Henry Tolley, Trinity’s head of market development. “It is an easier process if they are Trinity exam centres, as one of the requirements is for the students to sit an external test at the end of the course…Many English UK members are already Trinity centres: becoming one is a very straightforward process for those which are already accredited.”

While the PON announcement will be of interest to language providers in any Erasmus+ destination, the quick response in the UK reflects the importance of the programme for British ELT providers. Indeed, UK language schools may be especially well positioned this year as the weakening pound has helped to boost the affordability of language study in Britain. As we noted recently, the British pound is off against the Euro by nearly 16% over the past year and about 30% over the past two years.

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