Some Observations from a Non-Italian Parent
The Italian public high school system is complex, with dozens of different types of schools, divided into two major branches, licei and institutes. The licei were traditionally the college-preparatory schools, while the technical and professional institutes were intended to put people directly into the workforce. I say “were,” because the distinction was officially eliminated by educational reform legislation in 1962. It took time for these reforms to percolate through the system, but nowadays students are accepted into almost any university program from almost any type of high school, although it is still true that some types of high schools prepare you better than others for particular areas of higher study.
Liceo is the traditional, rigorous college preparatory program: five years of studies culminating in the esame della maturitÃ , a series of nationally-set written and oral exams. There were originally four types of liceo:
- classico, where you study Classical Greek and Latin as well as the usual subjects – Italy’s is the only school system in Europe (and probably the world) where Classical Greek can still be studied in high school;
- scientifico, with more emphasis on science, but also Latin (“promotes rigorous thinking” is the theory);
- artistico, which was originally a four-year program leading not to the maturitÃ , but directly to a fine arts academy (accademia delle belle arti), or to a school of architecture.
- magistrale, designed to train elementary-school teachers, though I believe that nowadays new teachers at all levels also need a university degree.
There are also some new types of liceo:
- linguistico, which offers a variety of foreign languages; and
- Europeo, which in some cases seems to have a jurisprudence/economics focus – pre-law school?
The four-year liceo artistico has now almost vanished; my daughter and most of her peers are in a five-year program, called “experimental”. Artistico has the longest hours of any school, with 19 periods a week of studio art in addition to 19 hours of academic classes, and homework in both arenas. For the first two years, everyone does the same subjects, then they choose one of four areas of specialization: architecture, art conservation and restoration, visual arts (painting and drawing), and graphic arts (which involves at least some computer graphics).
May 16, 2004 – As we are learning the painful way, this curriculum is overloaded. There is no way that 14-year-olds can learn physics or algebra in two 50-minute periods a week; even the teachers tacitly admit this, by giving occasional extra classes after school. Ross and many of her classmates have needed extra tutoring this year in one or more subjects, and a number are likely to fail the year; we’re working hard to help Ross not be one of them.
The failure rate at Italian high schools is astonishing. I don’t have any hard numbers, but practically every kid I hear about has repeated one or more years of high school – at least there is no great stigma in being bocciato (flunked). Since school is only required up to age 15 [this has since changed], one girl in Ross’ class has already dropped out. Another is probably dyslexic, but her parents have apparently never figured this out, nor is the school offering any help, except to suggest that she shift to the four-year program with fewer academic subjects.
The core curriculum seems to be the same at all licei. Nobody graduates without having read Dante and Manzoni (Ross’ class is also reading Umberto Eco), and having reviewed world history starting (again) from prehistoric man. All schools now require a second language (usually English), and many offer a third (French or German). Judging from Ross’ courseload, they’re probably also all doing math, physics, biology, and Italian. In general, I have been impressed by the articulateness and cultural depth of Italian high schoolers, and their schooling clearly has something to do with it – when they survive it.
I know less about the institutes. They are trade schools, with a basic academic curriculum, plus specific preparation in a range of areas from accounting to hospitality to construction. Most institutes theoretically prepare you to go straight into a job, but in practice many graduates of the istituti choose to go on to university.
see also: The Italian Ministry of Education website