When observing the Italian school system, remember that Italy is not a federal country, but rather a centralized nation where the Ministry of Education (Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione) speaks with absolute authority.
Even though there is a healthy amount of non-state owned educational institution, they are closely modeled on the state owned ones, for the simple reason that they want their diplomas to be recognized.
In the course of this writeup I will use the adjective public schools for the state-controlled schools (that cost very little) and private for the privately owned schools where the students must pay quite a bit of money to enroll (most of them belong to religious orders like the Jesuits and the Salesians). Readers of British background should remember that.

Another important particularity of Italian schools is that you stay with the same group of people for the whole of a schooling cycle, and everybody takes exactly the same courses (excluding University).
The same faces, for years, doing the same things together - unless a student fails a year: in that case, he has to re-take all his courses for that year, obviously in a different class with different people.
This is very different from what they do in Anglo-Saxon countries.

Trouble starts at the age of six

Italian education starts officially when the child is six years old; more precisely, in the first September after the child's sixth birthday.
Many parents consider this to be quite late, but no public school will enroll a child that is not yet six, so the only route for early schooling is through private schools.

This first chunk of school years is called Scuola Elementare, and it lasts five years.
The curriculum is standardized across the country; everybody studies exactly the same things and in the same order. The teachers are free to introduce subjects of local interest, and they can expand the subjects, but this must not get in the way of the standard curriculum.

Which is a good thing, because at the end of Scuola Elementare the pupil is subjected to a countrywide exam, based precisely on the standardized curriculum.

The desired outcome of Scuola Elementare is that the student be able to read, write, summarize, abstract simple problem into simple mathematical/geometrical formalisms; he is also given an introduction to history, geography, and a smattering of Natural Sciences.
Only recently the study of a foreign languge has been introduced; usually it is English, French or German. Most everybody, excluding special areas like Val d'Aosta and Southern Tiröl would like to study English, but the wish is not always granted. You know, we can't just fire all those fossil teachers of French, they will not be retrained, and teach they must.
The student should also be basically socialized, in the sense that he should not attempt to kill his classmates and set fire to the school.

The fine product of Scuola Elementare is then fed into the maw of Scuola Media Inferiore.
But it was not always so: when my mother went through all this, the mandatory schooling was over with Scuola Elementare. Only people with higher aspirations went on.
Nowadays, the State prescribes 8 years of schooling for all, and at this point we have three more to go. Oh, this is a good point to mention it: in Italy, keeping your children out of school is a crime - unless you can prove that they are in a state school, or being home-schooled (which hardly anybody does).
In Scuola Elementare there used to be only one teacher per classroom, and nowadays there are three, divided by subject areas.

There are many private schools in this level, mostly religious ones, typically favored by posh people: the quality of education in public elementari is generally good.

Middle ? Inferior ? three generic years

Scuola Media Inferiore (this is the official name, everybody in Italy calls it simply le medie) expands and elaborates, building crenellated constructions of knowledge on the solid foundations that the previous ... erm, actually, it is just more of the same.
The key difference with Scuola Elementare is that you have to deal with a multitude of teachers, and that is slightly easier to fail a class.

This lasts for three years, at the end of which the State deems you sufficiently educated. You can leave school at this point, but the only jobs you will be able to land will be physical labor. Anything nicer requires you to enter the wonderful world of Scuola Media Superiore

Where our ways part

Remember that up to this point you have not choosen anything. All you have studied was completely mandatory and good for you.
When entering Scuola media superiore (normally called le superiori), you have your chance to make one choice. After this stunning act of freedom, you are once again locked in a little box (in this case, of your own making) for some years.

There are many superiori, but we will violently summarize them here:

  • technical 3 years long: these schools teach a trade, like metalworking, masonry, cheese making ... there are many different kinds, some of them tied to local industry and tradition. Notice that these do not give access to University.
  • technical 5 years long: these schools teach a trade/profession, like accounting, electronics, navigation ... again, there are many. These schools, compared to the former ones, have also a theoretical and humanities part (five years of Italian literature: no Latin though), touching in some cases advanced Calculus.
  • liceo (5 years long), further divided into
    • liceo classico/liceo scientico: the only function of these two is to prepare you for University. liceo classico is heavily oriented towards humanities: 5 years of Latin, 5 years of Classical Greek, heavy emphasis on literature and philosophy and a very perfunctory treatment of Mathematics.
      liceo scientifico is not particularly scientific, since it is just the liceo classico minus the Greek plus Maths plus Physycs. Latin, Philosophy, Italian Literature are more or less the same.
      Again, let me remark how the product of these schools is totally unfit for life: you never learn how to fill in a check, you can't put a screw in a piece of wood ... your only real option is University.
    • liceo artistico, liceo linguistico, liceo musicale ...: these licei have a strong slant towards what their name indicates, and actually teach you things that you could use to make a living. Nonetheless, many graduates go on to University studies.

In this layer of schooling, the public school has a spotted record: there are some great licei and istituti tecnici with excellent tradition, that attract good professors. And there are some really crappy ones, usually in the provincial countryside areas.

Private schools (usually licei) are either very very good (the Salesians run some really hard ones), or really bad, more like remedial schools for desperate cases stuck in the middle of superiori.

At the end of your chosen Scuola Media Superiore there is (again) a nation-wide, standardized exam - one per type of school.
It always has a written part followed, some days later, by an oral examination. The Ministry of Education prepares the written tests, and puts them in sealed envelopes that are delivered manu militari (actually, by the Carabinieri) at all the schools in the country on the morning of the exam.
It is clear now why this final Esame di Maturitá is a national focus point for anxiety; it marks the end of Scuola; after that there is either lavoro or Universitá. It also concides with the first year when, since you are eighteen, you can drive a car, vote, go to a real jail and write cheques.
Notice that since Italy is a land of perversion, we don't have a minimum drinking or smoking age.

Anyway, this big, bad, nationwide exam has a 97% success rate for the licei I mentioned above, and much lower success rates for the other schools. I suspect that this is a good thing for a country, since an electrician that does not know well his trade can easily set fire to an office tower, while a half-assed humanist at most can embarass himself over the subjunctive mood. Aorists don't kill.
If you fail the exam, you repeat the last year of school. All of it, all classes.

The important bit, here, is that any 5 years school gives access to any University. This was an important reform, implemented after the student movements of 1968 - before, it used to be that to study Lettere Classiche (classical humanities) you needed a title from a liceo classico, which more or less made sense but was seen as oppressive and classist.

Notice also that many people stop here: it is a minority of Italians that go on to Italian University that, being such a fun subject, deserves its own writeup.

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