Educational Challenges in Italy

Written by: Matilde Ribetti

Photo by Michela Serventi on Unsplash

“Courage… little soldier of the immense army. Your books are your weapons, your class is your squad, the battlefield is the whole earth, and victory is human civilization” (Heart book). This is how de Amicis, author of Cuore, one of the most important works of nineteenth-century Italian literature, approaches the theme of education.

Stripped of the patriotic tone typical of the post-unification period, De Amicis puts down on paper one of the simplest but also most fundamental concepts underlying the educational theme: human civilization.

Culture is one of the founding elements of men’s identity, which is why education is recognized as a fundamental right to be guaranteed to every individual in a universal and unequivocal manner.

This concept is even more relevant when dropped into contemporary society, which places labor at the center of the production-consumption paradigm. Article 1 of the Italian Constitution states that Italy is a democratic republic, founded on labour, which is why, albeit with due reservations, it is interesting to reflect on the Marxian postulate on non-forced labour as a means of liberation.

Labour freed from exploitation is “real freedom”: regardless of the political connotation, a socioeconomic interpretation of this thesis highlights the relevance of education in the contemporary world (Marx, K., 2005). If a sound education, from a pragmatist perspective, is preliminary to obtaining a skilled job, then it can be said to form the basis of an individual’s economic independence and thus personal freedom.

History of education in Italy

In this perspective, it becomes even more evident how much education constitutes the fundamental core around which human civilization has developed for centuries.

Starting from the cursus honorum in ancient Rome to the Christian monasteries of the Middle Ages, education has always been considered an instrument of elevation. Italy was the cradle of Renaissance culture as well as the place of birth of the first university centers and scientific academies (Biagioli, M., 1989).

From the earliest days immediately after the unification of the Italian kingdom, among the main objectives was to unify the Italian people under one language through an extensive literacy campaign. In 1877 an extensive school reform introduced by the Coppino Law began, which stipulated that the two years of free elementary school previously introduced by the Casati Law became compulsory. In addition, normal schools were established to educate teachers, teachers’ salaries were increased by 10 percent, and new schools were built. The Coppino reform made schools secular: catechism was removed from the school curriculum and replaced with civic education.

However, the law had fallacies: the costs of elementary schools were borne by the municipalities, and those of high schools by the provinces.

This brought out the first among the biggest problems related to the Italian educational system: the gap between north and south due to the different economic resources of institutions (De Sanctis, F., & Cappelletti, 2020).

A few decades later, in addition to the territorial one, the social divide emerged as another problem of fundamental importance.

Under the fascist regime, the issue of consensus building was crucial: propaganda and repression of dissent were the two main tools through which the masses were nationalized. With this in mind, from the very beginning the regime realized the importance of the educational mean and thus began a process of fascistization of schools: the Gentile reform redefined the structure of the educational path on the model of the fascist social hierarchy, routing the children of workers, peasants and the ruling class into different schools on the basis of social background.

This is where the current Italian school system derives its still classist approach in some respects (Gabrielli, G., & Montino, D. (Eds.)., 2009).

La Paranza Cooperative, Naples, Italy – Photo by Paranza photographic archive

General definition and conditions of education in Italy

An Italian student’s schooling is divided into three different stages: elementary school (5 years), lower secondary school (3 years) and finally upper secondary school (5 years).

The first two grades are unified, while the last comprises different types of schools, including licei, vocational institutes and technical institutes. Once the type of school is chosen, the student must take courses specific to that track.

School choice, unlike other European systems, is not based on address of residence and therefore allows for greater student mobility and less social segregation. There are 10 years of compulsory schooling covering the age group of 6 to 16 (Obbligo scolastico. (n.d.)).

This means that the attainment of a high school diploma is not compulsory, which is why the share of the population aged 25-64 with at least an upper secondary education is 62.9 percent, which is significantly lower than the European average (79.0 percent in the EU27) and that of some of the largest EU countries (ISTAT, 2021).

The issue of the South

This fact is aggravated if we focus on the southern area of the peninsula, which, as already reiterated, enjoys less economic and industrial development.

The educational system in Italy’s Mezzogiorno has long been the subject of criticism and concern. Indeed, the region has a number of problems related to education, such as high dropout rates and low schooling rates, which negatively affect the area’s socio-economic development prospects. As a result of these factors, the population in the South is generally less educated than in the North-Center of the country, affecting access to employment and career opportunities.

Specifically, the percentage of adults with an upper secondary school diploma in the South is 38.5 percent, while only 16.2 percent have obtained a tertiary degree. In contrast, in the Center and the North, 45 percent and more than one in five, respectively, have earned a bachelor’s degree (ISTAT, 2021).

The need to address these problems is a major challenge for the education system and society as a whole.

The socioeconomic gap

As mentioned above, another crucial problem related to school dropout is the socioeconomic status of the family of origin.

Numerous research studies have shown that young people from low-income, low-education families are more likely to drop out of school than their peers from more affluent families. Poverty, economic instability and financial hardship can prevent young people from accessing educational opportunities, making dropping out of school a more likely option. In addition, parents with low levels of education may find it difficult to support their children through school due to financial constraints or lack of specific skills.

The unfavorable condition of the family environment seems to have a greater influence on early school dropout among young people residing in southern regions. In fact, school dropout rates are very similar among young people with parents with medium and high levels of education in both the North and the South, but show large differences in the case of parents with a maximum of a middle school diploma (25.5 percent in the South versus 18.9 percent in the North) (ISTAT, 2021).

However, it is important to stress that the socioeconomic status of the family is not an inescapable fate, but rather a factor that can and should be addressed through public policies and investment in education.

In view of this Italy needs to address numerous issues related to the education system to address inequality in access to education. It is necessary to reduce inequality and ensure equitable access to education for all students, including through economic support and social inclusion programs.

It is necessary to invest in schools, teacher training and the implementation of mentoring and support programs for students.

The effectiveness of education policies must be improved by adopting innovative and evidence-based strategies to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Ongoing teacher training and the use of state-of-the-art technology can help improve the quality of education and increase student interest and motivation.

In conclusion, Italy must address educational challenges with a long-term strategy based on investment in infrastructure, teacher training and student support. Only through a shared commitment between institutions, civil society, and individuals will it be possible to overcome the current challenges and ensure a better educational future for the Italian population.


Marx, K. (2005). Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy. Penguin UK.

Biagioli, M. (1989). The social status of Italian mathematicians, 1450–1600. History of science, 27(1), 41-95.


Gabrielli, G., & Montino, D. (Eds.). (2009). The fascist school: institutions, watchwords and places of the imagination. Verona: Ombre corte.

Obbligo scolastico. (n.d.). Ministero Dell’istruzione.

Livelli di istruzione e partecipazione alla formazione. (n.d.). Livelli Di Istruzione E Partecipazione Alla Formazione.

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