The Italian educational system developed slowly and unevenly. Provision for basic education was sorely neglected in Italy until well after World War II, yet the country also possessed outstanding high schools that gave an excellent classical education. The foundations of public education were two laws passed in 1859 and 1877, which theoretically made public education available to all children aged between six and nine years of age. However, because provision of schools was made the responsibility of municipal governments, which meant small villages had to levy taxes to pay for their own schools, the laws were widely ignored, especially in rural areas and the South. The 1911 census estimated that half the adult population was illiterate. According to Dennis Mack Smith, there were 35 education ministers between 1887 and 1925; obviously, such chopping and changing in the ministry precluded systematic attempts at reform. In 1911, a radical education minister, Luigi Credaro, finally made financing of schools a provincial responsibility and increased state spending on education. Nevertheless, basic education remained a hit-and-miss affair for many Italians, and illiteracy rates remained strikingly high throughout the Fascist period. The 1923 curriculum reform proposed by the Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile stressed humanistic education and less rote learning, but its effects were severely limited by Fascist indoctrination in the schools. As late as the 1950s, in defiance of article 34 of the Constitution of 1948, many children were educated only to the age of 11, and it was only in 1962 that the center-left government headed by Amintore Fanfani introduced both compulsory education until 14 and a common curriculum until that age. The immediate postwar years were also characterized by an acute shortage of teachers. This problem was overcome only in the 1970s, after the baby-boom generation graduated from university.
   Today, children start school typically aged six years and stay in primary education for five years. They are usually taught by two maestre (most primary school teachers are women), one for Italian language and the humanities, the other for science and mathematics. Languages are now widely taught in primary schools, too, with English being the most common second language. Between 11 and 14 years of age, Italians study at Scuola Media, where they take a leaving examination to determine their fitness for moving on to the next level. Until 1997, it was possible to leave school once one had passed the Scuola media examination, but it is now obligatory to have completed at least one year of secondary studies before dropping out of school. All secondary education is free and is administered by the state, though private (usually religious) schools do exist alongside the state system.
   Until recently, Italian secondary schools were divided into academic and professional schools. The most prestigious secondary schools were the preuniversity licei(like the French lycee or German Gymnasium). The 14-year-old could choose among the classical liceo, the scientific liceo, fine arts, the conservatory, the pedagogical liceo, and the liceo specializing in foreign languages. Those individuals who did not aim at university studies followed a separate track, concluding their education by studying at technical schools, industrial arts schools, the merchant marine academy, or secretarial and bookkeeping schools (ragionerie), although the possession of a diploma from these schools did not exclude pursuing a university career. Recent education reforms, however, have raised technical schools and the ragionerieto the status of the licei. The goal is to ensure that almost all young Italians are educated academically to 18 years of age.
   The school curriculum and teaching methods remain strikingly traditional: The Gentile law, with its emphasis on the humanistic disciplines, still exerts an influence. Students have a very limited choice of electives, and at the traditional licei Latin and philosophy are core subjects for all students. Students who fail to achieve satisfactory standards in several subjects may be required to repeat a year, although this practice is much less common than it once was. The school-leaving examination (maturita) has oral and written components. Until the late 1990s judgments of candidates’ readiness were made by a panel of eight, four from one’s own high school and four outside evaluators from other Italian regions. A 1997 reform introduced by the center-left Olive Tree coalition/Ulivo all but abolished outside assessment, a move that is widely believed to have lowered academic standards. All students who pass the maturita are entitled to automatic entry to a university.
   See also Universities.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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