Families with children relocating to Italy are often concerned about choosing a school in Italy that will best suit their children’s needs. The system of education in Italy has a large state sector and a smaller, more specialised private sector.
Foreign parents should take some time to evaluate their priorities and those of their children before choosing the institution they will attend. Education in Italy is compulsory from the ages of six to 16.
There are three levels of education in Italy:
- Scuola dell'infanzia (three to six years old)
- Scuola primaria (six to 11 years old)
- Scuola secondaria di primo grado (11 to 14 years old)
- Scuola secondaria di secondo grado (14 to 19 years old)
Italians place a high value on secondary schooling as well as tertiary education.
Public schools in Italy
Expats will be happy to learn that state schools are free, even for foreigners living in Italy who aren't formal permanent residents. This applies to primary schools and secondary schools, although enrolment taxes do become applicable after students reach the age of 16.
Most Italians send their children to state schools and those that send their children elsewhere often do so because they prefer their child's education to be rooted in alternative teaching methods or a religion (most commonly Catholicism).
Italian state schools operate according to a centralised system, which controls school curricula and final examinations.
Despite attempts at uniformity, however, it is widely acknowledged that education in northern Italy is of a higher standard than in the south. Furthermore, options and standards can be subject to a decline in rural areas. Expats planning to live outside urban centres should consider this when choosing a school.
State-sponsored schools teach in Italian, which is often the deciding factor in whether expat parents take advantage of the public system. English is usually taught as a second language, but these brief learning experiences are some distance from first-language instruction.
Still, expats planning to live in Italy for the long term should not overlook state schools, especially if their children are still fairly young. A lot of effort is made to integrate expat children using intensive Italian language classes, cultural activities and remedial classes. Language can also be a useful asset and learning Italian can open doors for future educational opportunities and career development. Younger children will generally pick up new languages faster.
Families who decide to send their children to state schools in Italy are often amazed at how quickly they adapt. However, it is also important to make sure that children are equally proficient in their home language as language is not only useful but a part of one’s culture.
Schooling in Italy differs from that in many other countries. Following scuola secondaria di primo grado where students take up an additional European language, they are required to specialised their courses. From age 14, therefore, children must decide to further their studies in the arts, sciences, languages, or economics and so on. There are specific schools based on the subjects that students choose to specialise in as well as technical and professional schools where students learn technical skills for varied sectors such as agriculture or they learn how to become a teacher.
There is a wide range of specialisations. However, these will impact one’s choice of university in the future and therefore may be a difficult decision to make.
Private schools in Italy
Private schools in Italy are generally either run by religious organisations or mandated by alternative teaching methods, such as Montessori education. The religious schools are largely Catholic, but they usually allow non-Catholic students to enrol.
For the most part, the standard of education does not vary greatly between state and private schools in Italy. The same curriculum is usually strictly adhered to. Some Italians consider private schools to be inferior to public schools.
Nonetheless, private schools do offer certain benefits that state schools do not. There tend to be more options than in state schools and there is more emphasis on extra-curricular activities. However, parents often take it for granted that classes will be smaller with more individual attention to students; this is not always the case.
International schools in Italy
An international school in Italy is the obvious option for expat families planning to live in the country for a short time or those who would prefer their children to continue with the curriculum of their home country. It is also a way to ease the transition into life in Italy as children attending these schools will be around others with similar backgrounds and will undertake a familiar curriculum.
However, this can create a bit of a cultural bubble with children not assimilating into Italian culture as a result. Some wealthy Italian parents choose to send their children to these schools, but they are in the minority. An ideal middle-ground solution for expats may be to enrol children in a school that combines the Italian curriculum with their home country's curriculum, or a bilingual international school teaching in both the child's native tongue and Italian.
A wide array of international schools can be found in Rome, Naples and Milan but there are many more scattered all over Italy, with the highest concentration found in urban centres. Curricula offered include American, British, French, Swiss, Japanese, German and many more.
There is stiff competition for the limited places available in prestigious international schools, so it's always best to start applications as early as possible. Admission requirements vary from institution to institution, as such, parents are advised to contact the school directly for specific information. Still, previous school records are a standard requirement. In some cases, extra steps may be needed, such as the child attending a personal interview or taking admission tests.
High tuition fees are the norm for international schools, so if possible, expats should try to negotiate for an educational allowance as part of their employment contract when relocating to Italy.
Tutors in Italy
Tutoring is relatively common in Italy, especially amongst expat families. To help children integrate, parents can enlist the help of tutors at home or arrange private Italian lessons. This can still prove more cost effective than paying the costly tuition typical of international schools and therefore provide an alternative for families. Online portals can help families locate a tutor to meet their specific educational needs, be it language or in maths.
Special needs education in Italy
People with disabilities have the right to receive a full, adequate and appropriate education in Italy. Inclusive education is implemented in Italy to avoid segregating children with special needs. This requires a comprehensive range of interventions and capacities to diagnose children's needs and provide support in terms of specialised teachers, transport and adapting learning materials. Collaboration between the school, teachers and families is key.
However, although few children with disabilities are in segregated settings, in reality these children may not be fully ‘included’ and may face micro-exclusions. One reason for this is that the level of care, though required to be uniform, varies across regions. Language barriers can also further complicate inclusive education and special needs learning.
►Moving to Italy with a special-needs child is essential reading for expat parents facing unique challenges
►See Teaching English in Italy for teaching opportunities in the country
"Great. I don’t particularly agree with the no-uniforms and co-ed school system." Elisa, an Australian expat has much to say on the school system in Italy in her expat interview.
"They eat at school and they have menus that include a large variety of meat, fish and vegetables − I am quite impressed with what they serve." Read Pauline's opinion on schools in Italy.
Are you an expat living in Italy?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Italy. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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