consigli e risorse per essere cosmopoliti

The Italian Education system explained to English Speaking Expats

This post is aimed at parents whose mother-tongue is English and who, for whatever reason, come to live with their families in Italy and have to choose a school for their children. I am writing this having American or British expats in mind, since these two are the most represented cases. This post might be also useful to any expat who is not at ease with Italian or the Italian school system.  After all, I have written an ebook on choosing a school for Italian parents so I might as well use some of my knowledge to do the same with expat parents.

Choosing a proper school anywhere is challenging, but when a family is relocated overseas it can be even more daunting because of the different language, habits and traditions and because of the different school system as a whole.  It therefore happens that choosing the right school is one of the most important decisions you make if you are moving with kids.  After all, you can easily change neighborhood, housing or shop at a different supermarket, but you can’t simply move your kids like packages from school to school in order to try out the best one that fits their and your needs.

That is why choosing an expatriate school for your child is a big decision, certainly one that will require a significant amount of research and some planning ahead.

Italian or International School: factors to consider

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages for an American or British child, and of course, each individual school has its own strengths and weaknesses.

In making the choice, it is worthwhile considering many factors, including the lenght of your stay, the amount of Italian language you hope your children will get, the kind of “credits” or “titles” you wish they’ll have at the end of a given period, in case they have to re-enter another school system.

You also need to take into consideration the neighborhood in which you are located, the distance from your place of work, the possibility that one parent is not working, and so on. In fact there are so many factors that I myself cannot take into account all of the possible scenarios, but I can surely contribute to illustrate which options are available.

The basic school choices you will have in Italy, at least in cities like Rome or Milan, fall into the following categories:

  • Italian public schools (mostly “scuole statali”, i.e. State schools, although nurseries and preschools can also be “comunali”);
  • Italian private schools (mostly “scuole paritarie” i.e. that follow the same curricula of public schools but require a fee. Most of these are Catholic schools);
  • A certain amount of schools that follow a specific method, like the Montessori one (both public and private, mostly at preschool and primary school level) or the Waldorf one (which are very few and all private ones);
  • English-speaking International schools ;
  • Other International Schools (French, Spanish, Swiss, German or Japanese schools);
  • Bilingual schools (again, mostly “paritarie” and “cattoliche”, see above).

The Italian public school system

If you are planning to stay and/or you prefer to immerse your children in the local culture, a local school will be the better choice. Attendance at such a school will offer your children a real taste of local life, as opposed to the shelter or niche of a foreign school.

If you are staying in Rome for good you can also plan a “mixed education”, giving your child the possibility to attend a local school at preschool or primary/elementary school level and then moving to an international school afterwards, or the reverse.

Education in Italy is divided into four stages:
1. preschool from 3 to 5/6 years (scuola dell’infanzia, though still many call it scuola materna); 2. primary school usually from 6 years to 11 – which you can anticipate a year, depending on the month of birth of your child – (scuola primaria, though still many call it scuola elementare);
3. middle school, from 11 to 14 years of age (scuola secondaria di primo grado, though still many call it scuola media);
4. high school from 14 to 19 years of age (scuola secondaria di secondo grado).

As stated above, Italy has both public and private schools. Many of the latter are called “paritarie” in the sense that the must comply with Italian regulations and programs. Basically they are like public school but privately owned, and thus you pay fees for them.

Two things to keep in mind are that many “scuole paritarie” are catholic schools and that, differently from British and American schools, they are not all quality schools, especially at the High School level. At the High school level, public education is often perceived to be of a higher standard than private education, and Italian parents generally send their children to private schools only for religious reasons, to obtain extra help that’s unavailable in a State school, or because of some special curriculum such as that offered by certain bilingual schools.

The Italian public school system is basically free to all children in Italy regardless of nationality. All children are required to attend school from age six through sixteen. Even the public nursery schools are free with reasonably sized classes and motivated teachers.

The school system has had a good reputation in the past, but it is now very old fashioned. It tends to focus a lot on rote memorization and obedience over thinking out of the box. On the other hand, when you get a good teacher, the amount of knowledge in subjects like history, literature, philosophy and history of art that you can get in the Italian system is impressive.

Infrastructure is really bad: many school buildings would need restoration and sports facilities are often very limited.

Scuola primaria (formerly “elementare“), or primary school, begins at age six and continues for five years. Schooling and textbooks are free but meals are not, making exceptions for needy families. The curriculum includes: Italian, English, Geography, History, Math, Science, Technology, Music, Art, Physical Education, Information Technology and Religion.

The next level, formerly known as scuola media, is now known as scuola secondaria di 1 grado, secondary school level one, where students study until they turn fourteen years old. Formerly at age fourteen, compulsory education was considered complete. Now this limit has been raised to sixteen.

While the schooling is free, books must be purchased at the secondary level. Students must take and pass an exam (“esame di terza media”) before moving up to High School.

It is important to know that in Italian school if you fail in too many subject you incur in a “bocciatura” and you are obliged to repeat the whole year (and not a single or a group of subjects).

High Schools in Italy

Higher secondary school lasts five years until the student is normally nineteen years old. Students must make a choice about their education at an early age (at 13 years) and choose the higher secondary school they will attend.

Each higher secondary school is broken down by the “indirizzo”, which means that each kind of indirizzo has different subjects:

  • liceo classico (classics high school)
  • liceo scientifico (scientific high school)
  • liceo linguistico (languages high school)
  • liceo delle scienze umane (human sciences high school)
  • liceo artistico (artistic high school)
  • liceo musicale e coreutico (music high school or dance academy)

Then there are more vocational trainings or professional trainings called

  • Istituto tecnico
  • Istituto professionale

That are sub-divided into other kind of specializations.

While teachers rotate to teach different classes, the student will have a class and one only class for the whole five years!

This means that classmates are of paramount importance in the Italian school system… which give a totally different flavor to the term “peer pressure”! That is why educated parents often give a lot of importance to the location of a school, hoping that a good neighborhood will mean good classmates.

When looking at the Italian High school system you must always take into account a feature common to Italian culture: there’s a gap between what you read and what you get, so have a local to guide you through. And, possibly, a local with knowledge. This is because Italy is a high-context culture  possibly puzzling to many other cultures, especially for Americans.

For example, it is important to know that children from privileged and educated families tend to choose between “Liceo Scientifico” (which, despite its name, includes Italian literature, Latin and Philosophy!) andLiceo Classico(which includes ancient Greek).

“Liceo linguistico” is becoming very popular, but beware: Italian schools tend to approach modern languages like English or French as they approach languages that are extinct, like Latin or Greek. Your child will have a lot of grammar and translation, but not enough conversation to actually speak fluently. Bear this in mind!

STEM subjects are found more in “Istituti tecnici” than in “Licei“, but the formers, which might be a good choice in the northern part of Italy where there is more of an entrepreneurship culture and many companies are located, do not have such a good reputation in the central and southern parts of Italy.

Liceo delle scienze umane“, which has a very appealing curriculum, is often considered an easier path, for those students who tried out either “Liceo Classico” or “Liceo Scientifico” and found, respectively, that ancient Greek or Math were way too difficult and maybe have to repeat a year.

Lately, apart from the different kinds of “indirizzo”, both public and private highs schools have been offering, in some classes, referred to as “sezione internazionale” or “europea” extensive foreign language instruction. These often work in the sense of incorporating, at an extra cost for parents, British standards such as Cambridge IGCSE subjects and exams. Some schools offer a double Italian and French degree at High School level called ESABAC, which incorporates a double high school diploma (Italian + French, hence the name “esa” from the Italian “esame” and “bac” from the French Baccalauréat).

On my blog there are many resources about the Italian schooling system, sadly only in Italian, but, if you are willing to learn about the different “licei” start from Come scegliere un liceo? Ecco la guida che cercavi!

How do you find an Italian school near your home? It’s quite simple: use this tool called La Scuola in Chiaro, which works for the whole of Italy.

What about international schools? I explore the issue in another post. Please read Expat families in Rome: how to choose a school in the Eternal City where I investigate upon the English-speaking international schools and on the Bilingual schools, especially those located in Rome. If, on the other hand, you need a list of international schools in other parts of Italy, please refer to the list that is reported in this post Le scuole internazionali in lingua inglese in Italia.


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  1. Hi Elisabetta – I really like your article. The paragraph describing the Public School System as old fashioned and focussing on rote learning and memorisation is spot on, but that the level of learning with a good teacher is impressive is exactly my experience. My children have been lucky enough to have some great teachers, but on the other hand at a certain point in my eldest son’s primary school education I did move schools as the teaching he was getting was atrocious – it really helps to have local Italian friends who can tell you about the teachers – all my friends seem to know which ones are good / bad / indifferent. Just one addition I would make is a mention that the quantity of homework is much higher compared to the British system. I’ve just discovered your blog and will be reading it all with great interest.

    1. Yes Michelle, the bottom line is that in a system that is both very traditional and in which there is almost no personalized education and little to no control over what the individual teacher is doing in class, the quality of the teacher is of paramount importance. I must add that most of the information travel by word of mouth, making everything daunting for those who have no previous connections to people living in the school area

  2. What is missing is a key piece of information: attending a classic lycee doesn’t preclude you from studying maths, engineering, medicine or any scientific subjects at university. Viceversa attending a scientific Lycée gives you strong foundations to study the humanities or languages. So even if you make a choice of school at 13 , all options are open until 18. Unlike the British system where you have to make a decision at 16.

  3. Hello Elisabetta,
    I also liked very much your article and I would like some advise about I should do. I am Brazilian but I immigrated to Canada 11 years ago, my daughter grew up in the Canadian Education System. I have a job opportunity in Udine, Italy and she is in grade 9, however none of us speak Italian even though we have Italian citizenship which would helpful. How are the high schools in Italy ? Do you think it would be too difficult for my daughter to attend public high school? ARe there English Tutors in the public schools that help non Italian speakers?Thanks

    1. Hello Cintia,
      Italian High School can be extremely difficult if you have no Italian, though teenagers are sometimes surprising. Should you be able to afford it, I would choose an international English-speaking school for the firs year. If this is not feasible, at least a school that has a consistent amount of English, like a liceo linguistico. Does your company help you in any way in the choice?

  4. Hello Elisabetta!
    Ended up on your blog as I was looking exactly for this: how to explain the Italian educational system to non-Italians.

    While I tend to agree with many of your points, I feel compelled to highlight something.

    Yes, Italian high school are very theoretical and very old-fashioned.

    But as someone who, after graduating from a much-hated Liceo Classico, lived and studied in different countries, I cannot explain how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to attend an Italian Liceo.

    While I used to see the non-personalisation of Italian high school curricula as a disadvantage, I’ve now realised that studying all subjects (thoroughly, at least in my case) is actually our strength! Plus, as pointed out above, nowadays Licei Classici and Scientifici offer an equally solid preparation in both humanistic and scientific subjects, which prepares you for whatever university course you want to do.

    Thanks to the classical preparation I received, I always found all the universities I attended (including prestigious ones) to be quite easy, as opposed to my fellow non-Italian classmates.

    Sooo, oh yes, Italian schools have many defects. But let’s also recognise the merits of our old-fashioned and traditional system. There’s a reason why many Italians excel in the international academic field (:

    All the best.

    1. Carolina, you have a point here and I do agree. I attended Liceo Classico too, and it worked wonders for me (also when I subsequently attended Oxford), but it also had many flaws. I was (still am) passionate about languages, literature and history, but I’ve had no modern languages after Ginnasio (not even English), no European literatures beside the Italian one (I still prefer French, German, British and Russian classics to Italian ones) and no chance to include any extra interest or activities. Italian schools give you good all-round foundation but, especially in the last years of high school, they feel like cages. This was my experience after having tasted the freedom of choice of the American public school system for a while when I lived in Stanford with my parents.
      Having said this, my 2 older children have attended/are attending Liceo (the third child being only 8).
      I nonetheless felt it important to describe Italian school as “traditional” to English-speaking expats because many are put off by the lack of choice and creative activities once they enroll their children.

  5. Buona sera, Sono Cecilia Morales- Risdonne, I have to continue in English because I can speak, understand and read italiano but my writing is so bad, my husband is italiano but we have been living in Mexico (San Luis Potosí) so far for more than 11 years, we have two sons, Lorenzo the eldest has 14thn years old and Matteo 11 years old.
    The thing is that our children have been at IB school since kinder garden, and my eldest, Lorenzo would like to go to Italia to start his high school, “scuola superiore”, and learn about his italian culture, family, traditions , etc.
    So please I am writing you in order to find a guide , Personally I would like that he can finish the IB till the end, and obtain his Tittle or certificate (aurea), please can you give me some advices about schools, with that program, the other thing is that Lorenzo has a schoolarship here at INTERNATIONAL TERRANOVA SCHOOL, WE PAY just 30% of his normal fee, I wonder in case you have a oublic school with that IB program? or in case you charge, how much it is per month? per year? can we apply for schoolarship? can you give me a hand? we prefer of course Rome, because our family is from L´quila, thank you very much indeed and in advance , for your time and suggestions, looking forward to hearing from you soon, best wishes and
    kind regards
    Please reply my email in italian is fine , I understand and my husband is italian,

    1. Hello Cecilia,
      and sorry for the late reply.
      You ask me very difficult questions, considering you live in another continent and supposing that your son might find moving to another school system in another country a bit of a choc. Also, where would he be living? Boarding schools are not a tradition here, which means less of a choice. The only partially public international school that I know of is in Genoa and is this Fees are much lower than other international schools.
      Then, in Rome, you have a sort of boarding Italian State school which is Convitto Nazionale. It has many different kinds of Liceo (both scientific and classic) and this is their website
      Here the difficulty would be to understand the logic of the Italian bureaucracy and also I am not sure your son could attend if he is not an Italian national. Either way, you have to get in touch directly with the schools. I am no educational consultant, I am only a mom.
      Now that I think of it, there is also a Convitto Nazionale in Campobasso , in the same region as L’aquila. Try writing to them. Good luck!

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