Expat Education in Milan: State School or Private International School?

There are many reasons international families move to Milan; to start a new job, to be close to family, to learn about one’s heritage, or to fulfill a longtime dream of living ‘la dolce vita’. When moving to Milan, in addition to the practical dilemmas like which  neighborhood to live in or how to get the correct visas, deciding on a state school or international school in Milan, every parent has questions:  

  • What is the Italian school system like?
  • How do I choose a school in Italy?
  • Will my kids be ok in an Italian school or should I send them to an international school?
  • How will they adapt to the language?
Learning in Italy/ photo ASM

What is the Italian school system like?

Understanding a little about the Italian school system may help you decide on a what kind of school is best for your children. Much like the American school system, the Italian school system is divided in four phases:

  • Preschool (kindergarten) referred to as “scuola materna”: 3-6 years;
  • Elementary (primary) school referred to as “scuola elementare”: 6-11 years;
  • Middle school (junior high) school referred to as “scuola media”: 11 to 14 years;
  • Secondary school (high school) referred to as “liceo”: 14-19 years.


At the moment, Italian preschool is not obligatory, however recent educational reform talks propose making preschool in Italy obligatory for children 3 years of age from the year 2023.

Elementary school

Sending your child to elementary school is compulsory in Italy. In contrast to British or American schools where children have a new teacher and classmates each year, in Italy elementary classes are taught in one class by one or two teachers and often the teacher and classmates remain the same throughout the entire elementary school years. 

Middle and high school

Unlike an American high school where students change classrooms for each subject, in Italy, both in middle school and high school, students stay in the classroom and the teachers move from one classroom to another, except for physical education when they move to the gym.

In the third year of Italian middle school, students are asked to think about what kind of high school they would like to attend. Italian high schools have a specific educational focus. Some high schools are oriented towards language and classical subjects, others are oriented towards science, art, music or vocational training.

The curriculum

Compulsory subjects taught for the 3 years of lower secondary school are: Italian, English, a second foreign language, history, geography, mathematics, sciences, technology, music, arts, sports education. Although Catechism is optional for pupils, all public state schools are required to offer it.

Extracurricular activities

Sport, music, drama and art are included in the educational curriculum, but most after-school, extracurricular activities are privately managed and not provide by the state schools.

The school schedule 

The school week in Italy for middle to secondary schools is six days a week, Monday-Saturday for a total of 30 – 36 hours. Time schedules vary by school, but generally, schools offering a six-day schedule hold classes from 8 AM to 1:30 PM.
School begins in September and ends in June. High school exams are given in July.

Private schools

The majority of private schools in Italy are Catholic schools and follow the Italian curriculum. Some private schools are for-profit commercial activities whereas others are run as foundations or non-profit organizations.

Private schools are not managed by the state and have total freedom regarding cultural and didactic preference. All private schools must follow the same procedures for carrying out state exams, fulfill required guidelines as set by the Ministry of Education and be able to provide students a qualification equivalent to those of state schools.

International Schools

In larger cities like Milan, Florence and Rome, international schools offering syllabuses in English, French or German are more widespread.

For example, the American School of Milan (ASM), is a non-profit school offering an American-style international program, which prepares students for the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. The IB program is recognized worldwide as the leading international curricula which focuses on fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills helping students excel not only in academics but also in multicultural environments.

Extracurricular activities at private schools

Private schools will also offer extracurricular activities and clubs in their program.  The American School of Milan is unique as it has a 9-acre campus with tennis courts, soccer field, gymnasium, theater, library, and laboratories.

Ask the school you are interested in to provide a program of after school activities.

International school in Milan

How do I choose a school for my children in Italy?

When choosing a school in Italy, especially when weighing the pros and cons of Public vs. Private, there are many factors that will influence your choice of school.

Visit a school

Most schools in Italy, state and private have an “open day” a day in which the school is open for prospective families to visit and speak with the students and teachers.  It is a festive occasion and an opportunity for students to practice public speaking and show-off their projects. By visiting a school you will see firsthand how the school operates.

Consider your location and time schedule

Regardless of nationality all children in Italy are guaranteed free schooling provided by the state. State schools will accept students from other municipalities, but priority is given to students living in the immediate residential area. Therefore, when looking for a state school, the best option is to research your immediate neighborhood.

Enrolling your child in a private school can be done no matter where you live.  You will need to consider the commute. For example, teaching a child how to use public transportation is an invaluable life experience. When they are old enough to go on their own, they will have acquired confidence and independence. 

Private schools can independently decide the weekly scholastic calendar.  Some schools follow the half day 6-week schedule and others follow a full day 5-day schedule. 

Will my kids be OK in an Italian school or should I send them to an international school?

Decide how long you will stay in Italy

The time you plan on staying in Milan is an important consideration. If you plan on staying indefinitely, you may opt for a state school as it will help them integrate, learn the language and experience the culture firsthand. 

Families here on short-term assignments or with plans to relocate to other countries, may opt for an international school with a language and curriculum that your child is already familiar with.

Reflect upon your own values and experience

A school is not only a place of learning, but also where we learn values such as accountability and respect as well as find the encouragement to become independent.  When choosing a school, the program and philosophy should reflect your own values, beliefs and aspirations you have for your child.

A Catholic school will provide religious education and a vocational school will teach invaluable skills.  

Mixed-culture couples often want to teach their children their own cultural values and heritage. International schools like the American School of Milan offer a program in English with an academically goal-oriented philosophy and the Lycée Français offer a French language curriculum with a focus on languages and sciences.

How will they adapt to the language?

Consider your child’s age

Children are extremely resilient and adaptable. They will quickly integrate socially, but without the proper instruction and guidance they still may find it difficult to cope with academic demands.  Speaking another language at home is certainly a benefit for children, but studies have shown that foreign students still struggle with the complexities of the Italian language and this reflects in their overall scholastic performance. An Italian speaking parent or tutor makes all the difference.

Teenage children may struggle more as they have already developed their own sense of identity and culture and may find it more difficult to fit into. In this case, an international school in Milan is the best option as your child will be in a multi-cultural environment and feel part of a global community

In conclusion, no matter what school you choose, adapting to a new culture and school will require both time and patience from both the student and the parent. Although it may be challenging at times it will be well worth the effort having your children grow up as global citizens.

This guide was brought to you by The American School of Milan.

American School of Milan entrance hall

The American School of Milan was founded in 1962 and offers an American-style education with international accreditations to children aged 3-18. ASM prepares students for success in the International Baccalaureate Diploma program that begins in the last 2 years of high school.

Although it is an American school, the student population is multicultural and international. Current enrollment is 920 students, representing more than 50 nationalities, the largest of these represented at the school are Italian (36%), American (15%), Korean (6%) and China, Spain and Saudi Arabian at 4% each. The school is not-for-profit and governed by a Board of Trustees comprised principally of parents of enrolled students.

Located in municipality of Noverasco di Opera, just 6 km from central Milan and other Milan suburbs, The American School of Milan has been serving international families for almost 60 years. 

American School of Milan

Via K. Marx 14
20073, Noverasco di Opera
Milan, Italy
Tel. 02-5300001

Other useful links (in Italian)

Minister of Education Italy

Lombardy  Office of Milan Schools https://milano.istruzione.lombardia.gov.it/

Community of Milan School District

Article by Celia Abernethy, Milanostyle.com
All images courtesy American School of Milan

About Author /

Celia is the founder and managing editor of MilanoStyle.com. Originally from New York, she now lives in Italy. She believes in living 'la dolce vita' to the fullest and helps travelers discover the best of Milan and Lake Como with custom itineraries and experiences. Email.

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