Education in ITALY

Education in ITALY

Jane Whittle and Leon Hutchison give Winter’s readers the low-down on Italy’s education system and international schools, drawing together all the key information you need…


As with every EU nation, there are numerous types of school in Italy, covering a vast range of curricula, teaching approaches, funding methods and religious affiliations. The Ministry of Public Instruction looks after the curriculum for state schools, while private schools are self-funded and self-regulated. Existing between these two types are schools that are part funded by the state on the condition of teaching the state curriculum.

State schools are, of course, common throughout the country. Private and international schools are to be found in the more populated areas, with international schools located only in the larger cities. World cities such as Rome and Milan have many international schools resulting in a large choice of curricula and teaching approaches, whereas smaller towns and cities such as Bologna and Palermo may have only one or two international schools.

The state education system

Education in Italy is compulsory for all children between six and 16 years old, and there are no tuition fees – even for the children of expats. A very didactic ‘from the blackboard’ approach to teaching is widespread, focused on grades and with regular reports provided to parents, especially at the secondary levels. State schools are managed at a regional and council (commune) level, which means there are important differences across the country – for example, some regions still hold exams in the final year of each compulsory level of education, driving the choices and routes for the next stage of schooling, whereas other regions have moved away from this. For non-Italian speaking students, very little language support is given, if any.


For children younger than the compulsory schooling age, there are ‘nidi’ which are similar to nurseries and crèches, and ‘scuola dell’Infanzia’ for three-year olds and over. These schools are not compulsory and fees are charged.

Primary school ('scuola primaria')

The first stage of compulsory education is primary school – ‘scuola primaria’ – for six to 11 year olds. Classes are never smaller than 10 and average around 25, and the subjects taught are all those you’d expect, with some English, depending on the school’s policy.

Elementary class at the American School of Milan

Elementary class at the American School of Milan

Middle school ('scuola media')

‘Scuola secondaria di primo grado,’ or ‘scuola media’ (middle school) is for 11 to 14 year olds. Tuition is free, but materials and books are supplied by the student and this can be costly. As a result, there is a thriving market for second-hand and well-used – ‘ben letto’ – books. Average class size is 21, and the subjects taught are, again, just as you’d expect: religion, Italian language, English, history, geography, science, maths, art, music, and so on. Some schools may also offer PE and graphic design. Another foreign language is chosen by the student. State middle schools will hold exams at the end of the final year.

High school ('liceo')

‘Scuola secondaria di secondo grado,’ or ‘liceo’ (high school) is for 14 year olds and above. Acceptance is usually based on the Scuola Media exams, and if the student doesn’t achieve the required grades, there is a period during the summer where students can re-sit exams at their own cost. Again, books and materials are provided by the student. Class sizes average 25.

The choice of liceo school is based on how the student chooses to focus their studies. Each liceo has a particular focus, while still teaching science, maths and languages. For example, a liceo artistico will focus on the arts, such as design, fine arts and photography. A liceo tecnologico will focus on technology, electronics, and so on. The list of focuses includes liguistico (languages), scientifico (sciences) and umane (humanities and psychology).

The types of liceo change regularly, so we can’t provide a definitive list in this summary. Different courses have different durations with some being longer than two years, which means that any student taking a longer course will be at school beyond the compulsory age of 16, at which point a tuition fee will need to be paid, though this isn’t usually a large amount. State assistance is available for students with special circumstances. Once the liceo course has been completed, the student receives a Diploma di Maturità.

University education

Italian universities offer Diploma di Laurea (the equivalent of a Bachelor Degree), Laurea Magistrale (Masters) and Dottorato di Ricerca (PhD). Course fees and length vary between institutions. There is an increasing number of courses being taught in English, although this is still far from being the norm.  Interestingly, different courses finish at different times of the year, so there is no one single occasion where all students finish their degree at the same time. Because of this, there are small-scale graduation celebrations taking place throughout the year in Italy.

Private schools

The private schools in Italy offer more choice regarding curriculum and teaching approach. Some choose not to teach the state curriculum and offer different qualifications – many of which are not officially recognised by the Italian state. The different teaching approaches that you’ll encounter include the British curriculum, the American curriculum, the Montessori method, the Reggio Emilia approach, the International Baccalaureate and the French Baccalaureate, among others. Some private schools receive part funding from the state. When this is the case, the school must teach the Italian national curriculum. Some private schools teach the Italian curriculum, or a form of it, without funding. A private school can combine these approaches in any number of ways.

International schools

There are many types of international school found throughout Italy, each adopting its own curriculum and teaching approach. They tend to be organised in way that is more similar to British or American schools. When considering an international school, it is advisable to research their curriculum quite carefully. In the case of bilingual schools, for example, some have a set curriculum for one language only. Because of these huge potential differences in international schools, research is very important before making a choice.

"When considering an international school, it is advisable to research their curriculum quite carefully..."

The differences between schools in Italy are not just limited to curriculum and teaching approach. For example, there is no standard school week. Some state schools may open for five full days in the week, some may open half days, some open half days on Saturday, and so on. International schools tend to follow the 9-3.30 Monday to Friday week, and most offer after-school clubs, sports activities or additional educational support at extra cost. There is a set number of days per year that students are expected to attend state school, and private schools tend to follow this rule. Because public holidays in Italy fall on set dates of the year, summer or Christmas holidays vary in length from year to year, while schools ensure they open for the required number of days.

Eating at school is directly affected by the school’s opening times. If a school closes around lunchtime then catering facilities are not needed. Some long-established schools may provide on-site catering for school lunches, but many opt to use off-site catering services as a cheaper alternative.

Transport to and from school is provided only if needed, and it is very normal to see school children on trains and buses with the rest of the commuters. Transport and food services are paid for by the student, with assistance available for state school students according to need. Private schools will normally expect fees for these services to be paid in full at the start of the year.

An outdoor lesson for these senior students at the American School of Milan

An outdoor lesson for these senior students at the American School of Milan

Regulation and staff

Currently there is no regulatory body for Italian state schools, and reforms or changes to the system are gradual. Because non-state funded private schools are not officially recognised by the state, there is no Italian regulatory body for these schools either.

In the international school circuit, many local Italian students will choose an international school primarily to learn the school’s chosen language. However, because these native students may intend go to university in Italy, many international schools offer the ability to study for Italian state qualifications alongside their own curriculum, often at extra cost to the student.

"...teachers are employed based on experience and merit as well as qualifications..."

All state school teachers will normally have trained and qualified in Italy. It is unusual to find a non-Italian teaching in a state school due to the fact that most non-Italian qualifications are not recognised. In private schools, teachers are employed based on experience and merit as well as qualifications.

International schools often seek to build a diversity of origin and experience in their faculty and may employ teachers without official qualifications. The very nature of international teaching means that there is usually a regular turnover of classroom teachers, most staying two to four years before moving on. These teachers can hail from anywhere in the world and speak a variety of languages, but will collectively have a shared language according to the language chosen by the international school. However, the majority will be EU passport holders as they don’t need a visa to work in Italy.

Teaching assistants in both state and private schools do not always need experience or qualifications. In international schools teaching assistants are often local Italians or foreign nationals that have put down long-term roots in the area. As a result, there is less of a staff turnover at this level.

It is important to note that anybody who works in a school of any kind in Italy is required by law to provide a criminal record check.

Rounding up…

With the growing number of students in private and international schools, there are various organisations looking to increase their recognition and acceptance. One of these organisations, the AIWBSI, is a collective of IB schools in Italy that work together to strengthen the image of the IB and its credentials.  There is also the Council of International Schools, that ensures certain standards are met and procedures followed throughout the world. Schools following a national curriculum are also assessed against formal criteria, such as those developed by Ofsted for British international schools.

To live and study in Italy is to be immersed in a nation of culture, art, literature, history and beautiful architecture. It’s an incredible learning experience for parents as well!


Top image - State University of Milan in via Festa del Perdono. Photograph: Goldmund100/Wikimedia

Other images courtesy of the American School of Milan.

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