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Pre-school education isn't compulsory in Italy. However, around 95 per cent of children attend some form of nursery or pre-primary school and the country's pre-school education is internationally recognised as one of the best in the world. Pre-school comprises two levels: day nursery or kindergarten (asilo nido, literally 'infant nest') and nursery school proper (scuola materna).

Asilo nurseries take children from as young as three months. They're primarily a facility for working parents who are unable to look after their children during the day. Costs vary according to the number of hours children attend and the particular nursery, but they're generally lower when facilities are run by the local council (comune). Places in such nurseries are consequently in huge demand and priority is usually given to parents who are unemployed or with a low income (applicants must complete a form at the town hall stating their family income).
Materna schools are also both state and privately run (communal, religious and private establishments account for over 40 per cent of materna schools) and take children from the ages of three to six, before entry to primary school.

Attendance at state nurseries is free, although a contribution is requested from families for transport and meals provided by the local council. Places are usually limited and you must submit an application well in advance to be sure of a place. For private materna schools, parents pay enrolment fees at the beginning of the year plus further monthly contributions. In the Rome area you can pay as little as ?0 for enrolment at a private nursery school, with monthly fees of between ?0 and ?50 depending on whether your child attends for a half or full day. For extra-curricular activities, such as physical education and music, where specialist teachers may be required, an extra monthly fee may be payable. It's therefore worthwhile checking the fees and extra expenses likely to be incurred at different nursery schools before enrolling your child.

Asilo nursery school hours are usually from 8.30am to 12.30pm, but parents have the option of leaving their children later. At materna schools, activities last a minimum of seven hours per day ?four hours in the morning and three in the afternoon ?and may be held on five or six days per week. Parents can often leave their children under the supervision of a qualified help after school (doposcuola) until 5 or 5.30pm, during which time activities are less structured and non-educational. State nurseries generally have the same holiday periods as state schools, so working parents must find alternative provision for their children during these periods. Schools may also organise summer activity programmes for children whose parents are working, and some local councils organise educational and recreational courses during July and August.

Materna schools are organised into groups (sezioni) according to age, with a minimum of 14 children and a maximum of 28. In schools in less populous areas, however, a school may have only one group comprising children of different ages. Each group must have two teachers (generally female), who usually remain with the same group for three years. The minimum number of children required to establish a school is 16, and they must all live within 2km (1.3mi) of the school.

In materna schools, the emphasis is on learning through play, rather than the day-care facility provided by the asilo nido. Teaching at these schools can take a variety of forms, although reforms passed in 1991 laid down a number of educational aims. These stipulate certain 'fields of experience' to be included in educational activity: body and movement, speech and words, space, order and measure, time and nature, messages, forms and media, and the self and others.
Music, physical activity, and arts and crafts all form part of the nursery curriculum, although children don't usually begin to learn the rudiments of reading and writing until they begin state primary school at the age of six. Therefore you may wish to consider a private school if you want your children to get a head start, particularly if your mother tongue isn't Italian. Children are assessed by teachers on entry into nursery school and several times during the course of the school year, a final report on their capabilities being made before their transfer to primary school.

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.


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