Italian High Schools

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 maturità, 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 maturità, 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

20 thoughts on “Italian High Schools”

  1. hello, my name Isabella. Sorry if my american is wrong, I’m from Italy in Milano. I jjust graduated and i think that in High school is the hardest years, I am very smart and I still had some trouble. Its almost as if u americans have it switched between your college and high school. It is very hard Ciao!

  2. Thank you for this. I am Canadian and researching Italian education for a school project. It certainly sounds far more difficult than it is here, but I am still in Grade 10, and the courses will be much harder next year. The system was explained so well, thank you again 🙂 Neila

  3. Thank you for this. I am Ghana and researching Italian education for a school project. It certainly sounds far more difficult than it is here, but I am still in student, and the courses will be much harder next year. The system was explained so well, thank you again 🙂

  4. Sorry but : “The technical school is different from professional institute for the legal duration of the course of five years, both for the joint preparation between theory and practice that ensures a base such as to permit enrollment.”(from italian’s wikipedia)

  5. Hi, I’m Greta and i’mattending the 4th year of LICEO LINGUISTICO. Sometimes i think that i have to study hard to obtain…NOTHING. in the 4th year i’ve to study latin, maths,physics,italian,english, german,spanish,history, philosophy, art history (finally religion and PE.). You can immagine that it is really hard, specially if you have to study about 16 books in a year. Teachers in Italy are often heartless, they don’t mind about you, they only want to give you a mark and get the salary at the end of the month. in 36 hours per week I only have 11 hours of languages (english german and spanish). I have english only 3 hours per week, instead, i have 4 hours of physics….this is useless if you think that my school is based on the study of lenguages.

  6. Hi! I’m giulia, from Bologna. I had the “maturità” last june and, as Greta, I was used to attend a liceo linguistico (English, German and Spanish). I thought that some subjects we had to study were only a pain in the ass too, but now I can say, without any doubt, that the satisfaction of passing through all that was wort every moment I spent there. I have to say that all the teachers I had were very motivated; someone was a sadist (read “someone” as German teacher), others totally crazy. Our timetable was obviously made by someone who didn’t know we were there to study foreign languages, and one of the characteristic that all the teachers in that school have is not knowing what mercy is. However I didn’t regreat my choice, and considering the effort University requires, I understand the reason why they were so stronzi sometimes. A “funny” thing I understand only the last year was that, if you stop seeing the subject as something you have to study because you simply have to, maybe you will continue hating them, but at least you’ll realize that also if they won’t save your life, there’s something good in each one.
    p.s.: about latin: I hate it with all my heart, but if you go to university, you’ll regreat to not have learnt it, above all if you study history…

  7. Hi,my name is Sabrina. Now,you can understand how is difficult an italian high school. Sorry for my english,i am, yet, in a middle school [3° Year],think that even a middle school girl knows how difficult it is a high school,poor me D:

  8. Thank you so much for this! I’m an American in freshman year. Most of my family is from Italy, but unfortunately not as traditional as I wish 🙁 I talked to my parents about movin to Italy and they said only if they had a really good schools system setup. Needless to say they were happy about this 🙂 thanks again!!

  9. I’m called Idriss I’m looking for a high to study history and philosophy.
    So please if you have one just let me know

  10. Italian schools are sooo different !! i do “liceo linguistico” and i study chinese! in italy attend a “liceo” is not so easy…!

  11. anyone who knows which kind of demands you need to fulfill to attend the italian highschools(liceo) if u come from abroad and wants to do the highschool in italy?
    any certain grades?

  12. Hi!

    I am a future exchange student to Italy and am in the process of choosing between Licceo Linguistico, Licceo Classico, and Liccio Scientifico. Any thoughts on which would be best for an exchange student? My grades do not matter so what I am really looking to is the school that I will be able to get the most unique valuable information out of while attending. By the way, I will be a fourth year student! So, any suggestions?


  13. Hmm, hard for me to say, but if you want unique I’d go for Classico – not that many schools in the US still teach Latin and Greek. Though I’ve been away for a while and am not entirely sure the Italian ones still do, either!

  14. Hi I’m janyl! my family and I are about to live in italy. By the way I’m from Philippines. I graduated high school here and we only have 4 years in highschool. I’m wondering if when I transfer in Italy, do I need to attend high school or liceo there?

  15. Or I would enter college directly? Please someone answer my question I’m too confused

  16. Hi! Im janylica from Philippines. My family and I were planning to live in Italy. I graduated high school here in Philippines( 4yrs of high school) I’m just wondering if do I need to repeat high school in Italy? Or should I attend college directly? Please someone answer it. ?Thanks

  17. Hello Janylica! I’m an Italian student and I’m currently studying at the Liceo Scientifico.
    My school aims to give the students a great study-method in order to achieve very good marks at the university.
    In my opinion you should apply for an University(public universities here are not so expensive) if you have a good high school preparation.

    If you or anyone else want more info about Italian schools, please message me on Facebook (Tommaso Tardini), I would love to give you guys advices!

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