A guide to education in Spain
If you're moving to Spain, here's a guide to Spanish education to help enrol your child into the Spanish school system from primary to secondary school.
Understanding the education system in Spain can be a daunting task, which can be made more difficult if there's a language barrier. However, you can choose from a range of Spanish and international schools to enrol your child into the education system in Spain. This guide to to the Spanish school system will take you through each level of the Spanish education system, from primary school through to two levels of secondary school, and up to Spanish higher education and university entrance.
The standards in Spanish education have greatly improved in the last 20 years through increases in spending and educational reforms. However, the latest OECD/PISA survey (2012) of educational standards of 15 year olds across 65 countries and economies showed that Spain’s performance in mathematics, reading and science was still just below the OECD average. Spain is currently ranked 33 out of 65. According to PISA, the standards could be raised if schools were allowed more autonomy and by increasing teacher morale. Others feel that the government should take back more control. Currently 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 make most of the decisions regarding their own education systems.
Religious education is offered in state schools but it’s optional. Schools are usually co-educational, and wherever possible, children with special needs are integrated into mainstream school. It is legal, although not popular, to home school children in Spain.
Choosing a school in Spain
Entrance to state schools is generally allocated according to your catchment area (for both primary and secondary education), so this may influence your decision on where to live. Some state schools in certain areas of Spain will teach in the dialect of the given region, instead of Spanish. So, in Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia or the Basque country, subjects may be taught in respectively Catalan, Gallego, Valencian or Basque. This is not always the case but is something to investigate, as it will mean your child will be taught in the regional dialect before learning Spanish. That said, most children master both the local dialect and Castellano (Spanish) as part of their general schooling.
Schools vary considerably in size and sophistication but often provide a strikingly caring and kind environment for small children. Schools in areas with concentrated foreign populations may lag behind the general standards, as students don't speak Spanish as a first language and it can hold back the academic progess of the classes. You may want to find a satisfactory school for your children before choosing a property, otherwise your child might not be eligible to go to your preferred school.
Compulsory education in Spain
Based upon the Ley Orgánica de Educación or Fundamental Law of Education, education is compulsory for all children and young people who are resident in Spain between the ages of six to 16 years, with primary education (primaria) lasting six years followed by four years of compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria or ESO), at the end of which a Certificate of Education is received. All students receive basic vocational training at secondary level.
Education authorities have an obligation to help foreign students integrate and must provide specific programmes to do this.
State education is free of charge in Spain from preschool to 18 years, although in some regions parents may be asked to pay for books, other materials and extra-curricular activities. Financial help may be available in some cases – check with your own autonomous region.
For more information about different types of school in Spain, see Expatica's guide on how to choose a school in Spain.
School holidays in Spain
The school year will vary from one region to another and will also be affected by what a child is studying, their level and their particular school. In Spain the school year generally starts in mid-September and runs through to mid-June. There are three terms of roughly 11 weeks.
Spain has among the longest school holidays of anywhere in Europe. Half terms do not really exist, though compensation is in the numerous local festival days and non-teaching days that give children and teachers more breaks in the school year.
There are usually two weeks of holiday over Christmas, two weeks over Easter and a long summer holiday of around 10–11 weeks. Children moving up from primary to secondary school will sometimes get an extra week or two of summer holiday, which may even include an end-of-school trip abroad.
Check with the website of your autonomous community or school for exact dates. Schools are also closed on public holidays and local religious holidays. For information about public holidays, see Expatica's guide to public holidays in Spain.
The school week in Spain
The daily timetable varies depending on the school and region. Generally, most children go to primary schools from 9am to noon, with a long lunch break of up to three hours before going back to school from 3pm to 5pm. Both private and state primary schools normally look after a child from the beginning to the end of the school day (9am–5pm). School lunch may be available, although some children bring a packed lunch or children return home. Lunch is considered the main meal of the Spanish day, and if your children eat the school lunch they will be encouraged to eat the substantial meal alongside other children.
In cities, the school day can end at 2pm, with only a short lunch break or no break at all. Some schools may also opt to open half days in September and June. Schools in large cities may have school activities before and after school.
Secondary school hours tend to be longer, with some schools starting around 8–8.30am and finishing around 5.30pm. In some cases, secondary schools might not provide supervision during the lunch break, and your child will either need to return home, or you will need to collect them. Older pupils can expect homework most nights.
The structure of the Spanish education system
The Spanish education system is divided into four stages, two of which are compulsory:
- Nursery and preschool (educación infantil) – optional
- Primary (educación or escuela primaria) – compulsory
- Compulsory secondary education (educación secundaria obligatoria)
- Upper secondary education (bachillerato) – optional
Nursery/preschool in Spain (educación infantil)
The first six years of education in Spain is known as educación infantil or infant education. It is divided into two stages.
The first stage is nursery school (guarderia), which takes children from around three months up to three years old, but it is not covered by the state. Guardería may be private or state-run but both charge fees (if you’re a working mother you may be eligible for help with these).
The second stage is preschool (escuela infantil) which take children from three to six years old. Preschools are often attached to state primary schools and are free. Most children attend the three years of preschool education and develop their physical and mental skills. From the age of four they learn to read and write and by the time they complete their Educación Infantil they will know the alphabet. Emphasis is placed on learning about various aspects of different cultures, the environment and road awareness skills
Spanish primary school (educación/escuela primaria)
Primary schools are known as escuelas or colegios (although the latter term is sometimes used to refer to semi-private and private schools). It is compulsory for children to attend primary school in the calendar year in which they turn six, and usually lasts until age 12. There are three, two-year stages or cycles, making a total of six academic years:
- Primer ciclo – age 6–8 years
- Segundo ciclo – 8–10 years
- Tercer ciclo – 10–12 years
Children study Spanish language and literature (and the language and literature of the autonomous region if applicable), mathematics, natural and social science (such as history, geography and biology), arts, a foreign language (and sometimes a second foreign language in the tercer ciclo) and physical education. All pupils have daily reading time. In the third cycle, they study Educación para la Ciudadanía, which is moral/social studies. You can chose whether or not you want your child to take religious (Catholic) education lessons when you join the school.
There is no streaming in Spanish primary education; classes are all mixed ability, and parents can see teachers if they need to discuss their child's progress and problems. Homework can be given from the first year onwards, and examinations can start from around the third year of primary school.
Children are regularly assessed and graded. Grades are:
- insufficient (IN) – insufficient
- suficiente (SU) – sufficient
- bien (BI) – good
- notable (NT) – very good
- sobresaliente (SB) – outstanding
If pupils have not attained a satisfactory level of education at the end of the first or third cycles they may have to repeat a year before moving onto the next stage. It is common for pupils to attend classes during the school holidays to catch up.
Spanish compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria)
After primary, students go onto compulsory secondary education or Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO) between the ages of 12 and 16 years old, at an Instituto de Educación Secundaria, Colegio Privado or Colegio Concertado.
The secondary school system in Spain has seen major changes in the past decade. It has moved away from the traditional rote-learning model and is now more akin to the British comprehensive system. The ethos is now more geared towards project work and continuous assessment than the old-style fact learning. Spanish schools have a relaxed atmosphere with less discipline than British schools, for example, and the family is expected to help the child with their studies.
Secondary education is divided into two cycles: from 12 to 14 years and from 14 to 16. In both cycles, there are core compulsory subjects and optional subjects. The core curriculum is usually Spanish language and literature (and the language and literature of the autonomous region if applicable), mathematics, geography, history, a foreign language and physical education. Optional subjects include music, technology, a second foreign language and social/moral studies. At the end of the two years, the curriculum has similar core subjects and students have to choose some optional courses which include: natural and social sciences, music, technology, plastic and visual arts. Religious education is optional.
Students are assessed regularly and may have to repeat a year if they don’t reach the expected level of attainment. Secondary students cannot repeat a year more than twice.
If students complete the four years and passes (aprobado) the expected standards they will be awarded a Graduate of Secondary Education Certificate or Graduado en Educación Secundaria. They can then move onto the next level of higher secondary education to do their bachillerato, which will allow them to apply to a university. Less academic students may be awarded a school certificate (certificado de escolaridad/escolarización).
Compulsory education ends at the end of ESO. At 16, students can choose to study for the bachillerato, undertake intermediate vocational training (formación profesional, or Ciclos Formativos), which will be geared towards a specific job, or leave education completely. Some students combine lessons in school with workplace training in order to earn a Certificado de Técnico which can lead to a job, further training or onto Bachillerato studies.
Spanish upper secondary education
Although not compulsory, students can continue their education by studying for university entrance or entering vocational studies.
At 16, students who wish to continue their education can study for a further two years to earn the Bachillerato certificate. It is roughly equivalent to UK ‘A’ Levels. This is the certificate needed to go to university although students will also have to sit an entrance exam (Prueba de Acceso a la Universidad or the ‘Selectividad’).
All students take a number of core subjects including Spanish, a foreign language and history but they also have to specialise in one area: natural and health sciences, sciences and engineering, social sciences, the humanities or the arts. Some nine subjects are studied with the yearly exam results of each subject aggregated to provide an overall mark up to 10.
A pass at Bachillerato will allow a student to take university entrance examinations (Selectivo).
To undertake the state-supervised Selectivo, the student will take 7–8 examinations over three days that mimic their Bachillerato examinations. Then they will be provided with an aggregate score up to 10 (like the Bachillerato system). This will be combined with their Bachillerato score to provide the overall university grade – although the Bachillerato exam results will account for 60 percent of their final aggregate mark and their Selectivo 40 percent. The final grade will define what they can study at university.
The vocational courses provided by the institutos are intended to provide practical training for a working skill such as plumbing, electrical work, hairdressing etc. The vocational courses last four years and result in qualifications universally recognised across Spain. There are two parts to the Ciclos Formativos:
- Grado Medio – this lasts two years and provides a basic level of training.
- Grado Superior – this lasts a further two years and can only be started when a student is 18 years old. If a student passes his Grado Superior he obtains access to the university system. Grado Superior is open also to direct entry from students who have passed their Bachillerato.
State universities and polytechnic universities
Those who have passed the Bachillerato with acceptable marks and who want to go on to university take an entrance exam in June. There are state universities throughout Spain that provide ‘degrees’ (diplomaturas) and professional qualifications (licenciaturas) and post degree education. Read more about higher education in Spain.
Languages assistance in Spanish schools
Lessons in Spanish state schools are taught in Spanish or sometimes in the regional language, such as Catalan or Basque. Schools usually assess the children’s ability in Spanish and if they need help with the language, they can be given extra lessons. Schools may put children in the appropriate class for their level of understanding – which could be with younger children – until their language has improved to the point that they can follow lessons with children of their own age. As a rule, the younger the child, the quicker the new language is acquired. Some children may have to repeat a year.
Some schools in areas where there are lot of expats offer intensive language or ‘bridge’ classes for the first few weeks alongside the usual curriculum. If a school does not offer extra help you may have to organise private lessons with a tutor or through a language centre in cities.
As part of an initiative between the MECD and the British Council, around 84 state preschools and 43 secondary schools in Spain offer a bilingual integrated Spanish-British curriculum. These programmes are offered in the second cycle of the educación infantil or preschool, when children are around four years old and run up to the end of Educación Secundaria Obligatoria around the age of 12. Contact the British Council in Spain for more information.
Special needs schools in Spain
Students with special educational needs may be educated within mainstream state schools, units within mainstream schools or within specialist special needs schools. If you have a child with special needs, get any documentation from any previous school translated into Spanish.
Home schooling in Spain
Not many parents choose to home school their child in Spain but it’s not illegal and there are organisations such as the Association para le Libre Educacion (ALE) to advise and support those who do.
- Ministerio de educación, cultura y deporte: the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport (information mainly in Spanish).
- British Council in Spain
- Association para le Libre Educacion: advice and support for home schoolers.
- How to choose a school in Spain
Need advice? Post your question on Expatica's free Ask the Expert service to see if we can help.
Updated 2011; July 2015.