Italian state education is free and yet large numbers of Italian and foreign parents choose private international schools despite the high fees.There are now at least fourteen international schools in Rome – providing a choice and often a standard to match most schools in the UK.
The popularity of international schools is due in part to the large numbers of international organisations and businesses that are based in the Italian capital as well as diplomats – two sets – one to the Italian State and one to the Vatican City! A further reason for the popularity of international schools is the local demand - Italians are very keen for their children to learn a foreign language from a very early age. Berlusconi came to power with a slogan of ‘the three i’s’ – internet, inglese and impresa (business), resulting in more Italians wanting an education for their children that gives them a good grounding in English.
The advantage of the increase in Italian children attending international schools is that the schools have more stable populations, as these families remain in Rome whilst the children whose parents are diplomats or employees of international companies or agencies tend to have fixed short-term contracts, rarely longer than three years.
Many of the children from Italian families spend their entire school lives in international schools, and one headteacher argues that there is therefore little that differentiates them in education terms from those children whose mother tongue is English. It is interesting to find out what language is being spoken in the playground.
Some parents want their children to integrate as much as possible in Italian life and welcome the contact with Italian families, especially when children are younger; others who are in Italy for a shorter period have as their priority an education that will keep their children very much at the same level and system as they were following at home.
Local Italian nursery goes from 3 months to 3 years. These are run by the local comune, usually to an impressive standard with fairly long opening hours. Scuola materna (kindergarten) run from 3 years to 6 years; they are state run and every child is entitled to a place. There are no fees. Italian children do not learn to read or write until they go to scuola elementare (now called scuola primaria) but follow a structured curriculum. They, too, have extended hours for working parents.
From 6 years on, school is compulsory, state run and free in Italian scuola primaria (primary school), with a wide curriculum including English and computer studies. Generally speaking, the teachers follow the children from first class until fifth class, after which the children move to scuola media from 11 to 13 years old.
In the international school sector, the schools usually follow the curriculum of the home country with additional lessons in Italian (and often English). Primary schools with larger numbers of Italian students prepare children for the Italian State exams so that after junior school, they can enter the Italian State Secondary system. Some schools offer this as an extra class. In Rome, there are more junior Schools than secondary schools since many Italians move into the state system at 11 years, and most of the secondary schools have a junior department.
Amongst the English-speaking secondary schools, St. Georges International School, still feels very British. Some schools, like the American Overseas School of Rome and Marymount International and St Stephen’s School, offer both the IB and the American systems (including Advanced Placement courses), though usually there is an emphasis on one system or another. In the two latter schools, the emphasis is on the AP and pupils tend to go on to American universities, so it is worth checking the strength of each programme in individual schools.
Parents in Rome usually prefer the IB if their children children are going onto European or UK universities. However, because the AP system is a course of modules that does not require extracurricular hours as a part of the curriculum, one parent explained that choosing the AP programme instead of the IB suited her child not only because she is thinking of going to an American University but also because it leaves her more time for her out-of-school sporting interest.
Only the New School in Rome offers A’ level specialisation after GCSEs rather than the IB, for students wishing to continue with the British curriculum.
So the decision of what qualification your child will need – A’ levels, IB or the American AP - will be the most important aspect of choosing a secondary school in Rome.
NB Choosing any of these curricula does not preclude the possibility of going on to university in a UK or US university.
All the international schools provide support to help non-native English speaking children acquire English as their second or often third language, though some schools definitely place more emphasis on learning Italian as well as English. Ambrit for example, made its name as an acronym of the American British Italian School to show the school’s belief in full immersion in both languages; it has both an English and an Italian library.
The support for non-native speakers means that it is also not uncommon for children to go to the French Lycee Chateubriand or Institut Saint Dominique even if they are not native French speakers, or to the Liceo Espanol Cervantes to follow the Spanish curriculum. There are also the German speaking Deutsche Schule Rome and the Scuola Svizzera Roma and a small Japanese Scuola Giapponese di Roma.
Most of the schools boast a wide range of extra curricular activities including drama, music, and sport and community service. The children’s school may be a social centre as well as a support network for parents who rely on each other for advice, help settling in and the beginnings of a social life in Rome. The American Overseas School of Rome even has a ski club – taking children up to the mountains for skiing during the winter weekends.
St George’s School has an extraordinarily active parent support network that provides practical help as well as a wealth of experience for newcomers besides many family events; Southlands has Italian lessons on its school site for parents to learn. These are just some examples of the extent to which the schools can and do support families outside the academic arena.
Another issue that is crucial to consider is the distances children will need to travel to get to school. The schools are spread all over Rome, mostly to the north spread out along the residential area of Cassia road (American Overseas School, St George’s British, Marymount International, The New School) and some schools are more central and near to the embassies and elegant residential area of Parioli (Rome International School, Core International School, The Nomenatana Junior School of St George’s British International School, Lycee Chateuabriand).
In the south of the city there are several schools close to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (St Stephen’s, Ambrit, Liceo Espanol Cervantes and Deutsche Schule Rom). The larger numbers of primary schools means that it may be possible to find a good school locally while they are younger, but for older children the choices are more limited. Take a large map and look at where the schools you are considering are placed at the same time as looking at accommodation options.
However, as noted in the Rome Expat Overview, public transportation is available and safe, and many children do travel by bus or metro to school. Almost all the schools operate school buses which is a convenient, though expensive, way of getting to school. Not all companies pay for school extras like school transport.