Which school to choose

State or private school?

If you’re able to choose between state and private education in Italy and between Italian and foreign-language schooling, the following information will help you to decide.

Which school to choose

Choosing the language of study is one probably the most important decisions to be made when selecting the best type of school for your children. How do you and your children view the thought of their studying in Italian? What language is best for them from a long-term point of view? Is schooling available in Italy in your children’s mother tongue?

The only schools in Italy using English as the teaching language are a few private foreign and international schools. If your children attend any other school, they must study all subjects in Italian. For most children, studying in Italian isn’t the handicap it may at first appear, particularly for young children, who usually adapt easily. The watershed age for learning a foreign language is between 10 and 12, after which children tend to learn languages more slowly. In recent years, Italian state schools have made a great effort to integrate foreign children and provide intensive Italian-language lessons, remedial classes and cultural activities.

Nevertheless, some children have great difficulty learning Italian and many foreign parents arrange private Italian lessons, often with the children of other foreign parents in their area, or send their children to an international school, where lessons are taught in English and they can learn Italian at a more leisurely pace without the pressure.

English is generally the second language taught in state schools in Italy, where it’s introduced as a compulsory subject in primary school and continued throughout secondary school. However, the level of instruction will do little to maintain your child’s ability to read and write in English; Italian students are rarely fluent by the time they leave school.

In some areas of Italy, the languages most commonly spoken are French and German, and Italian is a second language. Schools in the Val d’Aosta (French) and the Trentino-Alto Adige region (German) teach school syllabi in two languages and bi-lingualism is often a prerequisite for future employment. Other minority languages, including Slovenian, Albanian and Greek, may be included in the school curriculum if there’s sufficient demand from parents.

Other Considerations

You should also take into account the following:

  • State education is perceived to be of an equal or higher standard than private education, and Italian parents generally send their children to private schools only for religious reasons or to obtain extra help that’s unavailable in a state school.
  • Due to language (see above) and other integration problems, enrolling a child in an Italian state school is recommended only if you’re planning to stay for at least a year, particularly for teenage children who aren’t fluent in Italian. If you’re uncertain how long you will be staying in Italy, it’s probably best to assume a medium or long stay.
  • The area where you choose to live may affect your choice of school. For example, state schools may give preference to children living locally, and international schools (where the curriculum is taught in English) tend to be situated in or near the major cities. Children usually attend local nursery and primary schools, although Italy’s falling birth rate has led to many school closures in rural areas, with the result that children may need to travel some distance to the nearest large town or city to attend school, particularly at secondary level.
  • Where you plan to move to after Italy may be an important consideration with regard to your children’s language of tuition and system of education in Italy. Consider how old your children will be when you plan to leave Italy and what plans you may have for their further education.
  • Your children’s current ages and educational level will affect how easily they will fit into a private school or the Italian state school system. The younger they are, the easier it will be to place them in a suitable school.
  • Consider whether your children will require your help with their studies and, more importantly, whether you’ll be able to help them, particularly with their Italian. Is special or extra tutoring available in Italian and other subjects, if required?
  • Compare the school hours and holiday periods. State schools generally have compulsory Saturday morning classes. How will the school holidays and hours affect your family’s work and leisure activities?
  • If religion is an important aspect in your choice of school, bear in mind that there are very few strictly denominational schools in Italy, where most Catholic private schools accept non-Catholic students.
  • All Italian state schools are co-educational, so if you want your children to attend a single-sex school, you have no alternative but to go private.
  • Find out whether the school has a good academic record.
  • Ask how large the classes are and what the pupil:teacher ratio is. State schools have a maximum of 25 children in a class.

Consider also the secondary and further education prospects in Italy (or another country) and whether Italian examinations are recognised in your home country or the country where you plan to live after leaving Italy. If neither state nor private schools in Italy match your criteria, consider whether to send your children to a boarding school and, if so, in which country.

Obtain the opinions and advice of others who have been faced with the same decisions and problems, and collect as much information from as many different sources as possible before making a decision. Speak to teachers and the parents of children attending the schools on your shortlist. Finally, most parents find it pays to discuss the alternatives with their children before making a decision.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy from Survival Books.

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