The foundations for Italy's current education system were established in 1946, when the country became a parliamentary republic. Since then, the state has provided free education for all, from nursery school to university. The state sector is the backbone of the Italian education system and most students attend state schools and universities; private schools are generally seen as an alternative, rather than a better form of education. Compulsory education (scuola dell'obbligo) applies from the ages of 6 to 15 (an increase to 16 is planned), although 90 per cent of young people in Italy continue their education beyond the age of 15. The adult illiteracy rate is officially around 3 per cent, although unofficially it's much higher (almost exclusively limited to the south). State education is also free for the children of foreigners living in Italy, irrespective of whether they're registered residents (in 2003, some 150,000 foreign children were enrolled in Italian state schools).
After the age of 15, tuition remains free, although enrolment taxes are payable (see Provisions on page 176); these are minimal for secondary school education but increase considerably for university students (although still relatively low). University education is free for foreign students and there are no quotas for EU nationals (non-EU students require a student visa). Most young people are acutely aware of the value of qualifications and, as a result, very few school-leavers go directly into employment without studying for a diploma, degree or a professional qualification, and Italy boasts one of the largest numbers of university students in the world. Despite this, the percentage of students who graduate from university or even obtain secondary school qualifications is relatively low compared with other EU countries. Two reasons for this are the traditional (and rigorous) nature of education in Italy and the number of years (seven or eight) most students require to complete a degree. There's a high dropout rate among university students, only one in three who enrol graduating. However, due to its demanding curricula, Italy considers its school and university qualifications to be of a higher standard than those of many other countries, with the consequence that educational qualifications gained abroad aren't necessarily recognised in Italy or given equal status.
Both the curricula and examinations in state schools are set by the Ministry of Education (Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione), in consultation with an advisory body, the National Education Council. The Ministry is represented at regional level by school 'superintendencies' (sovrintendenze scolastiche). Italy is divided into scholastic districts (distretti) administered by provincial local education offices. In theory, this centralised system should ensure the same standard of education throughout the country, although in practice there's a considerable disparity between the quality of education in northern and the southern schools, the former being regarded as far superior. Recent years have seen a progressive devolvement of responsibility to regional education authorities and schools, one effect of which has been to give schools a (limited) degree of freedom in setting their own curricula. Since September 2000, state schools have also been responsible for managing their own finances.
The education system is divided into a number of distinct stages: pre-school, primary school, lower and upper secondary school, and higher and further education. Students are required to make specialist subject choices on entry into upper secondary school, and a number of options are available at this stage. Admission to Italian secondary schools isn't selective and, provided students obtain their lower secondary school-leaving certificate, they may go to the upper secondary school of their choice.
A child's progress is based on annual evaluations, which in turn are based on tests and continuous assessment. Written tests are held each term and oral tests (interrogazioni) at the discretion of the teacher. This can come as something of a shock to foreign children who aren't used to responding orally and who come from a system where greater emphasis is given to written work and exams. At university, the emphasis on oral examinations, as opposed to written ones, is even more marked, the majority of exams being conducted orally.
Pupils gain admission (promosso) to the next year's class only after attaining a satisfactory level in all subjects at the end of the academic year. Pupils who fail (bocciare) to reach the required standard in a particular subject carry forward an educational debit (debito formativo), which must be made up either through extra tuition during the summer holidays or by attending extra classes during the following academic year. If pupils fail in a number of subjects (usually over half the total), they may be refused admission into the next year's class and must repeat the entire year (respinto). All schools have regular parent-teacher meetings, where every attempt is made to prevent this happening.
As educational courses at school and university are largely determined by the Ministry of Education, they aren't tailored to the needs of individual students. At university a certain amount of choice can be exercised through a student's individual study plan, but a frequent criticism is that the structure of courses does little to encourage self-expression and personal development. Teaching methods at all levels are also often criticised as old-fashioned, with over-emphasis on learning by rote. The rigid adherence to a core curriculum (with textbooks often standardised) in state schools helps to ensure uniform standards but can be hard on slow learners. The need to introduce more flexible study programmes in schools has long been a subject of debate in Italy, and the last ten years have seen a gradual broadening of the school curriculum, partly through the introduction of experimental classes (classi sperimentali) based on students' own choices and needs.
The need to obtain a satisfactory level in all subjects each year, as well as passing exams at the end of each school cycle, means that Italian children must study hard from an early age. From primary school onwards, children are expected to do regular homework (compiti), the amount increasing with the age of the child (parents often set aside a considerable amount of time to help children with their homework).
Information about Italian schools and universities can be obtained from Italian embassies and consulates abroad, from foreign embassies and from educational departments within the Ministry of Education, Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione, Viale Trastevere, 76/a, 00153 Rome (( 06-58491, www.istruzione.it). Local school information can be obtained from town halls (comune) and from local education offices (provveditorati), as well as from the Ministry's website which lists the names and addresses of all state schools and many private schools by province (click on Anagrafe Scolastica). The Italy Schools page of the Worldwide Classroom's online directory (www.worldwide.edu/ci/italy/index.html) lists many educational institutions accepting both Italian and foreign students, including language schools, universities, private institutes and international schools.
This excerpt has been republished with permission from Survival Books. Some of the information may apply to EU citizens only. If you would like to get the inside track on moving to Italy, pick up your copy of this great book by clicking here.