State Schools in Italy

Organization and education policies

State Schools in Italy

State-funded schools in Italy are termed both state schools ( scuole statali) and public schools ( scuole pubbliche), although the term ‘state’ has been used in preference to ‘public’ in this book to prevent confusion with the British term ‘public school’, which refers to a private, fee-paying school.

The state school system in Italy differs considerably from school systems in, for example, the UK and the US, particularly regarding secondary and university education.

Schooling is divided into four educational cycles, as follows:

  • Nursery school – a three-year cycle from three to six years of age;
  • Primary school – a five-year cycle from 6 to 11;
  • Lower secondary school – a three-year cycle from 11 to 14;
  • Upper secondary school – a three, four or five-year cycle from 14 to 17, 18 or 19.

In small towns and villages, nursery, primary and lower secondary schools often form one unified school ( istituto comprensivo), and state nursery and primary schools are also sometimes grouped together within one teaching circle ( circolo didattico).

Attendance at a state nursery school isn’t compulsory and there are a number of other private pre-school options for children aged under six. Compulsory schooling begins with primary school and continues until the age of 16 or the first year of upper secondary school, provided a year’s schooling hasn’t been repeated.

Admission to an Italian school

Pupils gain admission ( promosso) to the next 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.

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. At the end of the upper secondary cycle, pupils take a state examination; if they pass, they receive a leaving certificate that allows them to progress to higher education.

Each school has a principal ( dirigente scolastico in primary schools and preside in secondary schools), who’s responsible for day-to-day management, co-ordinating school activities and establishing disciplinary sanctions. An important role is played by the school’s consultative committee ( consiglio d’istituto), made up of the principal, teaching and non-teaching staff, and (in secondary schools only) parents and pupils, who make decisions about the school’s budget as well as organising teaching and extra-curricular activities. A teaching committee ( collegio dei docenti) prepares a school’s educational plans, including timetables and the choice of textbooks.

There’s also a class council ( consiglio di classe) consisting of a panel of teachers, whose main task is to assess pupils’ progress at the end of each term and decide on their promotion to the following year’s class.

Religious studies in Italy

An hour of religious studies per week is part of the curriculum of all Italian schools, although this isn’t obligatory and parents may ask for their children to be exempted. The presence of disabled children in a class, provided they aren’t too seriously disabled (mentally or physically), is considered a source of general enrichment. Disabled children are entitled to up to 12 hours’ tuition per week with a specially qualified teacher ( maestro di sostegno) and, where applicable, schools must provide lifts.

A general criticism of Italian state schools often made by foreigners is the lack of extra-curricular activities such as sport, music, drama, arts and crafts. Although these subjects all form part of the school curriculum, they’re limited to a small number of hours per week; inter-school sports competitions, for example, are rare. Extra-curricular activities offered by Italian schools generally take place during afternoons and operate on a much more limited scale than, for example, in the UK and the US. To play in a sports team, a child must usually join a private (and therefore fee-paying) association, which entails parents ferrying him back and forth after school hours. Similarly, for music lessons it may be necessary to find a local teacher or enrol at a private music school.

Classes (grades) in Italian schools differ considerably from those in the American and British systems. Classes at each level are numbered from one upwards. Thus, the first class in primary school is the prima elementare, followed by the seconda elementare and so on, until the fifth and final class ( quinta elementare). In lower secondary school, the classes are prima media, seconda media and terza media. In both upper secondary school and university, the numbering refers to the year: primo anno, secondo anno and so on.

Enrolment in an Italian school

Information about schools in a particular area can be obtained from the local education office ( provveditorato) or the town hall ( comune), although this may simply be a list of schools with addresses and phone numbers. It’s up to parents to apply to schools directly.

If your child has already attended school in another country, a translation of his qualifications and previous school experience is required for enrolment in the Italian school system, together with a letter from the previous school’s principal. You also need to contact the Italian consulate before arriving in Italy and obtain an evaluation certificate ( dichiarazione di valore). Once this has been done, getting started in an Italian school is relatively straightforward, as schools are generally flexible about accommodating foreign students.

However, it’s difficult or impossible to organise state education in advance from your country of origin. A visit to Italy before your arrival is recommended, particularly as places may be limited, and you may end up ferrying children long distances to school if the one nearest to your home has no vacancies. Bear in mind that all schools and many public offices are closed during August.

Enrolment in an Italian state school doesn’t depend on your living within its catchment area, as is the case, for example, in France and the UK. You can make an application to the school of your choice and, provided a place is available, your child will be admitted, although when places are limited, priority is given to those who live in the local area. Schools have a deadline (around 25th January of the previous school year) by which they need to know the number of students who will be attending school the following September. Most schools have a flexible attitude to pupils who need to start school or change schools during the academic year.

Provided you have a good reason, it’s possible for a child to change schools within the same area or to another part of the country; a request must be in writing and be signed and approved by the principal of your child’s previous school.

To enrol a child in an Italian school, you need to complete an application form and provide the following documents:

  • certificate of family status ( certificato di stato di famiglia) – available from the registry office (Ufficio Anagrafe) in your comune;
  • your child’s birth certificate ( certificato di nascita) and proof of immunisation against hepatitis B, polio, diphtheria and tetanus (with relevant translations, if necessary);
  • a photograph of your child and your permit to stay ( permesso di soggiorno) or residence certificate ( certificato di residenza). Alternatively, written evidence of your intention to move permanently to Italy (if you haven’t already done so) is acceptable.

Parents can declare that they possess the necessary documents without actually producing them (a process called autodichiarazione). However, you can be prosecuted if details on an application form are subsequently found to be incorrect.

School Hours in Italy

School hours vary considerably according to the kind of school. Nursery school hours are usually from 8am to 4pm, with an hour’s break for lunch, five or six days per week. Primary and lower secondary schools generally schedule classes for 30 hours per week, Mondays to Saturdays. Most primary schools start at 8am and finish at 1pm, although attendance may be required for afternoon lessons on a few days per week. Some primary schools operate from Mondays to Fridays only, when lessons end at 4 or 4.30pm, with an hour’s break for lunch. Lessons at most lower secondary schools start at 8.15am and end at 1.15pm. Upper secondary school classes usually finish at 1.30pm.

Lessons in both primary and secondary schools traditionally last an hour, although schools now have the option of introducing 50-minute lessons. In primary schools, there’s usually a mid-morning break of 30 minutes, while in secondary schools it’s typically just ten minutes. Extra-curricular activities or afternoon lessons (if scheduled) generally commence at around 2.30pm.

School Holidays in Italy

Children attend school for 200 days in the school year, which runs from mid-September to mid-June and is divided into three terms ( trimestri). The regional school superintendence sets the calendar ( calendario scolastico) for all state schools in the region. School holiday dates vary little between regions in Italy, although schools in Sicily start a few days later in September due to the hotter weather. Typical holiday periods for a school year (all dates inclusive) are shown below:

State exams are held after 9th June. Schools are closed on public holidays when they fall within term time. In addition, schools in some regions are closed for one or two days in March. However, schools don’t have half-term holidays.

Absence from school is normally permitted only for a visit to a doctor or dentist, or for reasons of illness. In primary school, a note to the child’s teacher is sufficient, while in secondary school students have an official booklet that must be signed by both a parent and a teacher if a child is absent for any reason. A medical certificate must be produced after five days’ absence from school.


State education is free until the end of primary school, after which an enrolment tax ( tasse d’iscrizione) of around €20 is payable at the beginning of each school year. However, pens, stationery and sports clothing must be provided by parents. Textbooks are free only until the end of primary school. Parents can expect to pay an average of around €200 per year for books for a child at lower secondary school and up to €400 for a child at upper secondary school, depending on the subjects studied.

Up to the end of compulsory schooling, families on low incomes receive a contribution from regional authorities to buy textbooks, and books can be purchased second-hand (but you must make sure that they’re current). Italian schoolchildren usually carry their schoolbooks to and from school in a small rucksack ( zaino).

Nursery and primary schools usually require children to wear school aprons ( grembiule), which have a distinguishing pattern of little squares at nursery school and are a plain colour (usually blue) at primary school. These can be purchased from most clothing shops and supermarkets.

State schools don’t generally provide meals during the day. Where there are canteen facilities ( mensa), a small contribution is generally required. Otherwise, children with afternoon lessons who don’t have time to go home for lunch must make their own arrangements by either bringing a packed lunch or going to a local pizzeria or snack bar near the school. There may be somewhere for children to buy snacks to eat during the mid-morning break.

Italian schools don’t provide transport for children who live in outlying districts, although local councils are obliged to provide transport for state nursery schools, together with an adult chaperone. School buses are provided for primary and secondary schools only if there’s no school within 3km (2mi), when a small contribution towards the cost of transport (usually between €15 and €30 per month) is usually payable.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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