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, subsidized private schools, bilingual schools, and fully independent international schools.
State schools, private schools, or international schools in Spain can all offer a lot to the expat family. However, you need to research which part of the Spanish education system best suits the needs of your children.
Education in Spain
All children in Spain must attend school between the ages of 6 and 16. This 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, do vocational training, or stop studying altogether. To find out about the structure of the Spanish education system, see Expatica’s guide to the school system in Spain.
To enroll your child into Spanish education, you can choose between a state school, private school (most of which are subsidized by the state), or a fully independent school, which includes most international schools in Spain. 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, sending your child to a local Spanish school is a good option. Your child will mix with Spanish children and quickly pick up the language.
It helps if you also speak some Spanish, as you’ll probably need it to speak to the teachers, 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 a new environment. If you 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 state schools in Spain don’t usually offer many extracurricular activities such as sports or arts. As a result, parents often organize this themselves. Additionally, class sizes tend to be larger – up to 30 students – than in private schools in Spain.
Pros and cons of international schools in Spain
If you have an older child or your stay in Spain will be short-term, then you might want to consider an international school in Spain. 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 Basque 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 in Spain are public schools. 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 in Spain, 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 minimize 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 the primary level, the school is often within walking distance of home. At the secondary level, the closest school may be some distance away, so pupils often travel by 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 the Spanish education system.
Applying to go to a Spanish state school
Schools have pupil quotas and it’s first come-first served. If the school of your choice is popular, research enrolment dates as soon as possible. Enrolment dates vary, but it usually takes place for two months between February and May.
Foreign parents should allow time to enroll their child in a state school in Spain, as the process can be lengthy. Your local town hall 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 must register on el padrón (the official register of inhabitants) at your local ayuntamiento before you enrolling your child at a state school. After registering, 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:
- your child’s birth certificate or passport
- your own passport
- a Spanish NIE number (Número de Identidad de Extranjero)
- an immunization certificate
- proof of residence
You may also require passport photos and report cards from a previous school. If your child is starting the third year of secondary school, you also need 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 for details from a Spanish embassy.
The convalidación process requires sending the right forms, your child’s school records, and birth certificate to the MECD. A child cannot start school until the official papers have been received and stamped by the Spanish Department of Education. The process takes between three and six months, although a receipt from the Education Ministry for the convalidacion documents for your child can be acceptable to start school.
Information is available at regional level on the Community Madrid website, where you can search for schools and find information on everything from Early Years Education through to Universities. The Madrid City Council website also has a section on education.
Plenty of information is available from the Generalitat de Catalunya, covering all levels of education, including details on application processes. The official website for school information in Barcelona is available here. You can find details of local schools as well as a wealth of support services and resources.
Information on education services in Valencia is available from the Educacio Valencia (in Spanish).
The Malaga City Council offers details of school facilities as well as information on grants and scholarships available for study.
Information on educational services in Seville is published on the City Council website. This includes details of educational programs running in the city.
Private schools in Spain
About a third of Spanish children and young people go to a private school. Some private schools receive funding from the state (colegio concertados) and fees are thus cheaper. Others are fully independent (colegios privados).
Private schools in Spain have smaller class sizes, more academic subjects, better facilities, and more extracurricular activities than state schools. Most private schools are open from Monday to Friday, they may be day school or take boarders. They set their own term dates independent of the Spanish state education system.
You can choose a private school in Spain based on which course level or curriculum you want your childen to learn, including:
- the Spanish bachillerato;
- the British GCSE and A-level examinations;
- the American High School Diploma and its college entrance examinations (e.g., ACT, SAT, achievement tests and AP exams);
- the International Baccalaureate (IB).
The Spanish bachillerato is generally taught at private schools in Spain, which teach entirely in Spanish, are state-subsidized (thus cheaper) and follow the Spanish state-school curriculum.
Admission and enrollment 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.
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. See our guide to international schools in Spain for more information, including details on how to apply.
Homeschooling in Spain
Homeschooling isn’t illegal but few Spaniards do it. For more information on homeschooling 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 headteacher. 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 recognized?
- What nationality are other students?
- If it’s a private school, what do the fees include/not include?
- What are the withdrawal conditions?