The progression through schools in Italy is not so different from in North America, in that there is an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. The ages roughly correspond: elementary school is for five years, ages 6 10; middle school is three years, ages 11 13; and high school is five years, ages 14 18. That’s more or less where the similarities end.
For one thing, students choose to go to a high school for either science or humanities, or else for vocational training. Not so long ago, that choice definitively determined your course of study in university as well. Now, a student from a scientific high school, for example, can theoretically choose to study journalism at university, but conventional wisdom still states that a scientific high school will prepare you less well for a humanities degree, and vice versa. Just how well you perform on the maturit , the exam at the end of high school, will determine which fields of study you are allowed to pursue at university.
There has been continual debate in parliament for the last few years over proposed reforms to the system, especially the transition from middle school to high school. Whether the test that students are subjected to at the end of middle school can keep them from entering a certain type of high school, and instead determine that they are to go to vocational school, is still undecided as of the writing of this book. This uncertainty is likely to continue: Reforms under one government are regularly overturned in the next, and that cycle in Italy is relatively frequent.
Public Schools vs. Private Schools Public schools are often at their best at the first two levels: the scuola materna, for three- to fiveyear-olds, and elementary school, which in Italy runs from first to fifth grade. According to some parents I interviewed, their elementary school students were even studying Greek and Latin (!), while recent reforms have made English and computer classes compulsory. In general, parents feel that students start to receive less attention as they progress into scuola media (middle school), liceo (high school), and beyond, culminating in a university system where”depending, of course, on the sort of program you attend”professors are often hard to track down for questions, much being less available for counseling.
Private schools are not necessarily the best place to send a gifted student. Run for the most part by religious orders, they tend to cater to those with short attention spans or disciplinary problems. That said, there are a number of private schools with highly regarded curricula, where a top-flight education costs top euro.
The third possibility is a private English-language school, which seems the most logical option for expatriates but is also a popular option for Italian families willing to pay top euro for their children’s command of English. There are British, U.S., and international schools in the major cities, some with better reputations than others. (A comprehensive listing of those schools is available in the English Yellow Pages at www.intoitaly.it.) One occasional lament from parents, however, is that there are so many Italian students in these academies that classes can sometimes move slowly to accommodate nonnative speakers.