Schools in Spain: state, private, bilingual and international schools
Education in Spain can offer a lot to the expat family, but should you enrol your child in a Spanish state school, a private school or an international school in Spain?
If you're moving to Spain with children, there are many schools in Spain to choose from: free state Spanish schools, subsidised private schools, bilingual schools and fully independent international schools.
Spanish state schools, private schools in Spain, or international schools in Spain can all offer a lot to the expat family, but you need to do research to see which Spanish education system best suits the needs of your children.
Education in Spain
All children resident in Spain must attend school between the ages of 6 and 16, which includes primary education (educación primaria) and compulsory secondary education (educación secundaria obligatoria or ESO). After this, students can either continue onto optional upper secondary education (bachillerato) if they want to enter university, undertake vocational training to enter a profession, or leave education altogether. To find out about the way the Spanish education system is structured, see Expatica's guide to the school system in Spain.
To enrol your child into Spanish education, you can choose between a state school, private Spanish school (most of which are subsidised by the state) or a fully independent school, which includes most international and foreign schools. It’s also legal to home school your child in Spain.
Local Spanish school or international school?
Pros and cons of a local Spanish school
If you’re planning on staying in Spain long-term or have young children (first years of primary or younger) then sending your child to a local Spanish school can be a good option. Your child will be mixing with Spanish children and will quickly pick up the language and integrate into Spanish culture.
It can help if you also speak some Spanish as you’ll probably need it to speak to the teachers, most of whom won’t speak your language, as well as help your children with their homework. Immersing your child in a foreign language from day one can put pressure on them, beyond all the ordinary strains associated with starting a new school, so home support can help and taking Spanish lessons prior to the move can be beneficial.
Older children might find it more difficult to adjust as they’ll be learning a new language, a new curriculum and will probably miss their old friends and environment. However, some Spanish schools across Spain do offer bilingual British-Spanish programmes. If you decide to send your child to a Spanish school, make sure you allow your child time to settle in – it might take a while.
Another consideration is that Spanish state schools don’t usually offer many extra-curricular activities such as sports, drama arts/crafts or music, so parents have to organise this though local clubs themselves. Additionally, class sizes tend to be larger – up to 30 students – than in private schools.
Pros and cons of international schools in Spain
If you have an older child (over 8 years old) or your stay in Spain will be short-term then you might want to consider a private international school. Pupils can continue with a familiar curriculum taught in their native language. These schools usually have small classes, provide a wide choice of academic and non-academic subjects and activities and they achieve excellent results. However, all this comes at a cost and fees can be high.
Another important consideration is that while an international school may expose children to cultures from around the world and they will have Spanish lessons in school, they will have limited contact with the Spanish language and culture. This can hinder their integration or make them feel like the odd one out in their new home. Bilingual schools can be an alternate option to aid your child's Spanish skills.
State schools in Spain
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte or MECD) has overall responsibility for education in Spain but the 17 autonomous regions control their own education systems. This means schools can teach in the regional language instead of Spanish, so in the Baque country, Catalonia, Galicia or Valencia, you will find a small percentage of schools that teach in Basque, Catalan, Gallego, or Valencian respectively.
The majority of children in Spain attend Spanish state schools. State schools are called ‘public schools’ (not to be confused with English public schools which are private). Within the state education system in Spain, children usually attend the closest school to home at both primary and secondary level (allocated by the education department of the ayuntamiento or town hall). If you are about to move to Spain, your choice of school may influence the decision about where you live.
Some primary state schools, particularly in areas with large expat populations such as the Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca, provide extra Spanish classes to bring foreign pupils up to speed and to minimise disruption in classes for the Spanish children. They may also encourage a pairing scheme between Spanish and foreign children to help new pupils settle in.
At primary level, the school is often within walking distance of home while at secondary level, the closest school may be some distance away so pupils often travel to school on the school bus. In cities there will probably be several schools to choose from in your area. You can find out about the choice of local schools at your ayuntamiento. Read more about state schools in Spain.
Applying to go to a Spanish state school
Schools have pupil quotas and it’s first come-first served, so if the school of your choice is popular you should make sure you find out about enrolment dates as soon as possible. Enrolment dates vary according to where you live and the school so you need to check, but enrolment usually takes place for two months some time between February and May of the year you want your child to start at the school.
Foreign parents should allow time to enrol their child in a Spanish state school, as the process can sometimes be lengthy. Your local town hall in the area you are moving to can give you their requirements as the process and paperwork vary from region to region. Be sure to ask if any foreign documents need to be officially translated.
You’ll need to be registered on the padrón (the official register of inhabitants) at your local ayuntamiento before you can enrol your child at a state school. Once registered you can go to the education department of the ayuntamiento to get a school registration form and medical certificate for your child.
You may need to show:
- your child’s birth certificate or passport
- your own passport
- your NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjero)
- an up-to-date immunisation/medical certificate
- proof of residence in Spain.
You may also be required to take along two passport-sized photos and any school reports/exam results from a previous school. If your child will be starting the third year of secondary school, you’ll also need to get your child’s school records verified by the MECD in a process called convalidación or homologación (the official record of your child's education), ideally before coming to Spain. Ask at the Spanish embassy or consulate in your home country for details on how to do this.
The convalidación process requires you to send the appropriate forms from the Department of Education (MECD) along with your child's school record book and/or examination qualifications, plus his/her birth certificate. A child will not be accepted at school until the official papers have been received and stamped by the Spanish Department of Education. The process can take between three to six months, although a receipt from the Education Ministry for the convalidacion documents for your child can be acceptable to start school.
Private schools in Spain
About a third of Spanish children and young people go to a private school. Some private schools are funded by the state (colegio concertados) and fees are subsidised thus cheaper, and others are fully independent (colegios privados).
Private schools tend to have smaller classes sizes, have a wider choice of academic subjects, have better facilities and offer more extra-curricular activities than state schools. Most private schools are open from Monday to Friday, they may be day school or take boarders, and they will set their own term dates independent of the Spanish state education system.
Spanish private schools
Most Spanish private schools are state-subsidised (colegio concertados) and so follow the Spanish curriculum, and adhere to the same rules and regulations as state schools. They usually teach in Spanish. They are mostly co-educational Catholic day schools although some may take weekly or termly boarders. Read more about private schools in Spain
Admission and enrolment procedures for Spanish private schools
If you want to send your child to a colegio concertados, you must apply though registering on the padrón and education department of the ayuntamiento in the same way as for a state school (see above).
International, bilingual and foreign schools in Spain
Many international schools in Spain are fully independent (colegios privados). You will find international schools in Spain that teach the English curriculum (GCSE and A levels), the US curriculum (the American High School Diploma and college entrance exams), and the International Baccalaureate (IB). Educational standards are usually high. Some schools take children from nursery age up to university entrance level, otherwise concentrate on primary and/or secondary. Most international schools teach in English.
Some international schools are also part funded by the state, including bilingual education. They follow the Spanish curriculum, leading to the bachillerato, teaching in both English and Spanish. About a quarter of pupils in these schools will probably be Spanish. The aim is for pupils to be completely bilingual and able to go onto further education or employment in either language.
There are also other foreign schools in Spain where the lessons are taught in other languages such as French, German or Swedish. All foreign schools must be approved by their country’s embassy in Spain so getting in touch with yours can be a good starting point in finding a school for your child.
For more information on international and foreign schools, see the European Council for International Schools (ECIS) and the National Association of British Schools in Spain (NABSS), or read Expatica's guide to international and private schools in Spain.
Admission and enrolment procedures for international schools in Spain
You’ll need to apply as far in advance as possible as many schools have waiting lists. Look at the schools’ websites for details of enrolment procedures but you will usually be required to show school reports and exam results and potential pupils may have to sit a test.
Fees vary from school to school. As an example, 2015/16 fees at an international school in Madrid range from around EUR 2,200 per term for nursery children up to some EUR 4,000 per term for year 12 pupils (age 16). Fees are usually for tuition only so they don’t include registration fees, stationery, books and other school supplies or insurance (necessary). Extra-curricular activities, trips or meals will also be extra.
Some schools offer scholarships or burseries to help parents on lower incomes and there may be sibling discounts. Always check the withdrawal conditions – fees will be payable if you decide to leave the school outside of the notice period.
Home schooling in Spain
Home schooling isn’t illegal but few Spaniards do it. For more information on home schooling in Spain see Expatica's guide to the school system in Spain.
Choosing a Spanish school checklist
If you can, visit the school and meet the head teacher. In addition to the criteria you would normally apply to finding your child’s school at home, you might want to find out:
- If lessons will be taught in Spanish, what language and other support will be available?
- What languages are taught as obligatory or optional?
- What does the curriculum include? Ask to look at a typical timetable to see academic/non-academic ratio.
- What examinations are set? Are they internationally recognised?
- What nationality are other students?
- If it’s a private school, what do the fees include/not include?
- What are the withdrawal conditions?
For more information
- European Council for International Schools (ECIS)
- National Association of British Schools in Spain (NABSS).
- School system in Spain
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Updated 2011; July 2015.
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