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The Italian state-school system is fee of charge and consists of several levels. Attendance is compulsory from the ages of six to 14 years, although children can attend a scuola materna(nursery school) form the ages of three to five years before starting the scuola elementare (primary school) at six. After five years they move on to the scuola media (secondary school) until they reach the age of 14.

The next level, the scuola secondaria superiore (higher secondary school), is voluntary and lasts a further five years until the student is 19 years old. This level is essential for study at university. At this higher school level there are several options: four types of liceo (humanities-based school), four types of technical school and a teacher-training school.

The government is in the process of reforming the state education system. It compares reasonably well with those in other countries but there are problems: teacher-training standards are often deficient and management is poor.

Private schools in Italy are run mainly by religious institutions, notably by Jesuits.

Italy has a long tradition of university education and can claim to  have the world's oldest university, established at Bologna in the 11th century. Courses usually last from four to six years, although students are under no obligation to complete them in this time. In fact, students often take many more years to fulfil their quota of exams and submit their final thesis. Attendance at inevitably overcrowded lectures is optional and for scientific courses practical experimentation is rare. Students therefore tend to study at home from books. All state-school and university examinations are oral, rather than written.

Italy produces far fewer graduates per capita than most other countries in the west. Despite that, unemployment among graduates is estimated at higher than 40%.

Officially at least, 2% of Italians over the age of 15 cannot read or write, ore or less in line with European averages.


Italy is not readily associated with dramatic scientific discovery, especially when most advances seem to emanate from the powerhouse that is the United States. But some of the best-known geniuses in history came from Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was perhaps the greatest polymath of his time. He considered himself first and foremost an artist but his curiosity led him into a vast array of fields of knowledge, Painting itself led him to anatomy. Anxious to win greater insight into the human body in order to be better able to portray it, he carried out numerous dissections that in turn resulted in his striking anatomical studies and drawings, For the time they were a unique and insightful medical tool.

An architect and engineer, Leonardo was also at home with mechanics. His biggest contribution to scientific progress was the systematic use of diagrams to illustrate engineering principles. He also let his fantasy loose and envisaged flying machines and even armoured vehicles centuries before they would become reality.

A man of many talents: Leonardo da Vinci

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), a fellow Tuscan, had more specific interests that he pursued with tenacity in the face of increasing opposition from the Church, Foremost of these was his belief in Copernicus' system that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round, Schooled in medicine and mathematics (he is considered the father of experimental physics), he was fascinated by the invention of the telescope and proceeded to make his own. With this and later instruments, he confirmed Copernicus' theory and thus turned thinking about the earth's place in the unverse in its head. The  Church felt so threatened by the theories that might call into question the universal order that lay behind its omnipotence that Galileo was obliged to recant his radical theories in his later years, He never stopped studying and remained convinced of his discoveries until his dying days.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), a historical philosopher from Naples, is thought to have influence the work of such later luminaries as Marx, Goethe and Nietzsche through his opus magnus, Scienza Nuova (New Science; 1725).

More than a century later, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) from Como electrified the world with his invention of the battery. He had been galvanised by his colleague and friend, Luigi Galvani (1737-98) who, in 1780, had discovered that by using a fog's leg as a conductor between two pieces of metal, a small electric current could be created. Volta took this a step further, found the animal conductor was not needed and in 1800 demonstrated the battery - the first ever source of continuous current. The volt, a unit of electric current, was named after Volta in 1881.

Without electricity, the Bolognese Nobel-prize winner Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) could never have invented and developed his system of radio-telegraphy, which he presented in 1896 and then later patented in the UK. Over succeeding years he developed means of sending messages on radio waves over increasing distances. His big triumph came in 1901 when he managed to transmit a message between Wales and Newfoundland - silencing critics who had predicated such messages could not be sent over long distances because of the earth's curvature. Marconi kept at it and in 1918 he broadcast the first radio message from the UK to Australia.

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