Written by Sarah McLean (January 2016)
It’s that time of year again, and as a mother with one child in elementary school, one about to enter elementary school, and a younger child, I have had several people ask me for advice as to where to send their children to elementary school. I am by no means an expert, but I here are some thoughts based on my experience and of others that I have spoken to that I hope might be helpful.
What not to expect in an Italian school
First, you may need to adjust your cultural expectations.
– It’s hard and emotional to decide: Picking a school can be difficult for everyone, but may be especially hard for those of us who went to school in another country and may have different aspirations for our children based on our experience and plans for the future.
– Data: There is public data about how schools in Florence (and elsewhere in Italy) differ with respect to test scores, demographics, and other measures, but it isn’t as prominently displayed as it is in some other countries—all schools, particularly elementary schools, are theoretically equal. Of course, that does not mean that they are the same. The best source I have found is this website (in Italian only) http://cercalatuascuola.istruzione.it/cercalatuascuola/ which does give information on standardised test results, some indications of the school’s social and economic context, and many other interesting facts for both public and many private schools.
– Focus on academic learning: If you want your child to practice a sport, learn an instrument (other than the recorder), or do many other things, expect to do it on your own time (and with your own budget). While students have a weekly hour (or more) of gym, art, music, etc. the focus is “reading, writing, and arithmetic”.
– Infrastructure: given that many buildings are old, and many have been built with another purpose in mind, many schools do not have much in the way of outdoor space, gyms, disability access, etc. They also generally do not have playground equipment in elementary school—I suspect for insurance/risk reasons.
– Different attitudes: To broadly generalize, Italian parents may have different expectations and perceptions of school than the average expat. A few differences include the perception of public versus private schools (private schools are sometimes seen to be where children who cannot succeed in the public system go to school rather than higher quality schools), the importance of children not being stressed, and the need for snacks/a hot lunch. Elementary school teachers tend to focus their attention on whether children learn the required material and are happy, but may not be particularly interested in helping each child realise his or her full potential if they exceed the curricular requirements.
What to expect
– Elementary school is 5 years—children theoretically will have the same teacher and classmates for all of those years.
– School days are Monday to Friday inclusive, with normal hours from approximately 8:30 to 4:30 (40 hours a week). There may be before and after school care options to accommodate working parents (often at a cost). There is also a 28 hour program (tempo corto) offered at some schools.
– There may not be a school bus, and children are not released from school without an authorised person (parent, other relative, babysitter, etc.) picking them up.
– A hot, three course lunch is provided to children, which you are billed for on a sliding scale depending on your family income (ISEE). The food is often good, and (in public schools) a classroom parent is designated cafeteria inspector who eats a couple of times a year at the cafeteria and reports back on the quality of food, ambiance, and cleanliness.
– Children have a snack time (around 10:30) and often bring a snack from home
– Children usually wear a blue school smock (public and some private schools) or a uniform to school—these are available for purchase in many children’s clothing/grocery/cartoleria stores in late August and early September and are almost impossible to find outside of that period.
– You will have to buy notebooks and other school supplies at the beginning of the year—you may have to arrange to order and pick up textbooks at a local bookstore (but they are usually paid for by the city of Florence).
– Children may be required to leave a pair of athletic shoes at school for gym class.
– Children with special needs attend the same school classes and may have a teaching assistant (insegnante di sostegno) assigned to help them in the classroom. Similarly, there are no special classes for children who do not speak Italian, and they often do not have the support of an additional teacher. There are no gifted/talented programs in Florence or I believe elsewhere in Italy.
– Class sizes vary from about 15-27 children per teacher. There is usually only one teacher present at a time in the classroom.
– Children’s work is graded on a scale of 1-10, with many children receiving 10s for their work. The passing grade is 6.
– Children typically receive 2 report cards per year with numeric grades in each subject, a general evaluation of their behaviour, and some comments
– Religion (Roman Catholicism) is a school subject at all schools, but parents can chose not to have their children attend the religion class (avvelarsi dell’ora alternativa) or possibly come late/leave early when the subject is offered.
– Relationships between the teacher/school administration and the parents are mediated by a class representative (a parent elected at the first parent meeting of the year) who attends additional meetings at the school, disseminates information to the parents, is the first line of parent complaint/concern, and often collects money for end of year teacher gifts, organises the email list/Whatsapp group/etc.
– Public school teachers and staff may strike—you will receive notice of the strike in advance, but may not necessarily know if your child’s teacher will be at school or whether your child will have school or not that day until the day itself.
Public or private?
Obviously the clear difference between the two types of school is that you are paying for private school. In addition to cost, here are a few things to consider:
– School hours and flexibility—public schools are often inflexible about their hours (your child must be dropped off/picked up at a specific time) and they may strike (I counted 14 strikes of at least some school personnel in my son’s school last school year—he was directly affected by only a few of those, and there have been fewer strikes so far this school year, but school strikes can be a real problem for those who work and do not have backup child care).
– Convenience: where is the school located? Is there a school bus? Some private schools also offer extracurricular activities at the school so you don’t have to take your child to after school lessons.
– Peer group: where are your child’s current classmates going? Are the children at the private school you are considering likely to remain in Italy as long as your child is?
– Your child’s needs: would your child benefit from something only a private school would offer? This might (but not necessarily mean) smaller classes, or specialised instruction.
– Could your child easily transfer into public school (or another private school) if necessary? This might be difficult if your child is attending an international or alternative school.
– How likely is the staff to remain consistent (for better or worse) when your child is there? In some private schools, teachers are not given indefinite contracts, or are working at a private school while also waiting to be called for permanent jobs in the public education system. Some public schools have a higher fraction of teachers “di ruolo” (in a permanent position, and therefore likely to stay there) than others. Of course, your child’s teacher can unexpectedly go on leave in any of these situations, but this is less likely if they are in a permanent job.
– Who will be your child’s main teacher(s)? You may not know this in advance, but it is one of the most important factors in your child’s school experience.
– How is the school doing financially? Some private schools have suffered with the crisis—enrolments are down, and there may be a question as to whether they will remain open/offer what they say they will offer to your child.
– Is there a wait list? Some private schools have long wait lists, but differ in whether they require a registration fee to join the list. It may make sense to sign up for a school early if you are considering it or risk not finding space.
English is a mandatory school subject from first grade onward. Many Italian children take after school English lessons, and an increasing number of private schools offer English programs. Of course, these lessons vary a great deal in quality, and are designed for Italian children to learn English as an additional language. Here are some things to think about:
– Who will be teaching English? Most of the teachers officially certified to teach English in the Italian primary school system have only a basic grasp of the language. Some are fantastic teachers and are willing to learn from your child, others feel threatened by the presence of native speaking children in his/her class. Some native English speaking teachers are excellent, others may not have a teaching background, experience, or be a poor fit for your child.
– Who else will be leading the English class? Even in the public system, it is common to find English mother tongue volunteers (often American university students) who will come to at least some English classes. You might also be able to help.
– What is the language background of the other students? Even if the teacher learned English as a mother tongue, if most of the class has had limited exposure to English, the class level won’t be well suited to a native English speaker.
– Will your child be expected to do the class English activities? Likely yes, although the teacher may allow your child to do extra/alternative work in class (or recruit your child to be an assistant teacher).
– Is there separate English instruction available for bilingual/English speaking children? This is unlikely to be the case in public and many private schools.
Long or short time?
Several public schools offer a shorter school program where children attend two full days of school, and three half-days (often with the option of remaining at school for lunch during those half days and exiting after 2 pm). This can be an attractive option for those who do not need the additional hours of child care. Some of the consequences of the shorter time program include:
– More homework—children in full-time elementary school often only have homework on weekends; short time children will likely have homework on their short days of school. This may be good training for middle school homework expectations, but will likely require some additional time from parents/grandparents/others to supervise/enforce.
– More time for other things: despite the additional homework, children in short time do have more time to play outside of school and participate in extracurricular activities.
– Faster pace at school—Since the same material is covered in 12 fewer hours, the teacher has less time to review and answer questions in class.
– Usually one primary teacher, not two—Most subjects are taught by one teacher, with additional teachers covering some hours (typically English, art, science, etc.). This means that only one teacher spends a significant amount of time with your child, and the subjects that teacher does not teach may be less integrated into the program (and you may not have as clear a sense as to what your child does during that time).
Which school is right for your family?
– Schools hold “open days” (open house sessions usually in the evenings) often in January where you can tour the school and meet the administrators and some teachers. This may be the only chance you have to see the school facilities
– Many schools (including public schools) have websites where a variety of information is available—including textbooks, class lists, general information about the school.
– Some questions to ask (at the open day or elsewhere):
– Who would my child’s teachers be? Can we meet them before enrolling? Are they “di ruolo”?
– Class composition: how many children, from which areas of the city, speaking which languages at home (for those interested in bilingual education), coming from which schools?
– Where will my child’s classroom be? Where will gym/lunch/recess/other activities take place?
How to register
– Public school registration is available online from January 22 to February 22 at istruzione.it There is no advantage in registering relatively early—spaces are allocated on the basis of a points system (residency, work locations, siblings, etc. are some of the factors) after registration closes. You can select up to 2 schools.
– Private school registrations vary by school.