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Starting children in Spanish schools: the big decisions

When should children start school? Until recently I was of the opinion that later is better. I thought that most European countries didn’t begin their formal education until well after we did in England and congratulated them for it. So it came as something of a surprise when I made enquiries about starting dates for my son, Joseph. Although compulsory schooling in Spain starts at age six, I discovered that many families take up the option of starting their children at three.

I had thought it strange that his nursery contained very few older children – in fact Joseph looked to be almost the eldest. Now I understood why. Although it seemed to be only five minutes since he was born, he could officially be starting his school career in September at only three years old. But was he and was I ready?

Parenting involves a constant round of decision-making, sometimes with a minimum of information. Choosing schools and, in this case, when to start, is perhaps one of the biggest. I knew that his nursery would not interest him for very much longer. He’s a lively boy who is not at his best when he’s bored as our neighbours will vouch for and he needs the stimulus and challenge of his own age group. Staying at home with us, two ‘older’ parents who work from home and speak limited Spanish, would not help either his social skills or his bilingualism. He had integrated well into his Spanish nursery school and I was keen that he continued to mix and communicate in a way that we were struggling to manage. I know how hard it is at the other end of the age scale to try and learn a language and ‘fit in’. So school it was.

Having recently done the circuit of NIE, Residencia, Padron and SIP card the idea of more bureaucracy was not on my wish list. I had found the whole process of making myself ‘official’ extremely frustrating and long-winded and couldn’t imagine that the process of enrolling Joseph in school would be any easier. However, I was mildly surprised. The following account is based upon my own experience in Valencia. As with most procedures in Spain it will vary depending upon which area you live in.

Step 1: Checking out what you need to do

I have been learning Spanish for a year now. I can speak the basics and sometimes make myself understood. However, I am a long way from understanding a rapidly conducted conversation on matters important. For me a translator is still mandatory for anything of consequence. So, for my first few trips to el colegio publico I went accompanied. This not only meant I could communicate but I felt more confident with my tri-lingual ally by my side.

I find Spanish schools much less welcoming in appearance than most English schools. Spanish schools seem to go for the sparse and almost austere look in comparison to the fussy frivolity that characterises the English primary school. Approaching a Spanish school you are not besieged by vast numbers of ‘this way to the entrance’ signs and ‘welcome’ in a string of different languages. In fact, finding the right entrance can in itself be quite difficult. So, it was with a sense of relief when we made it to reception and our enquiry was warmly greeted. Yes, he was of the right age and yes, we were in time.

The receptionist explained that between May 6 and 14 we were eligible to enrol Joseph by coming to the school and completing a form. She explained that we would need to bring a number of documents with us no surprise here and gave me a list. It included:

Proof of residence, for example the padron or DNI and utilities bill or rental contract
Medical certificate
Joseph’s health card and copy SIP
4 passport size photographs
the family book
a certificate from his current school

I went away feeling quite reassured but with more documents to source.

Step 2: Getting the documents

Some of the documents made perfect sense and were no trouble. I could brandish my padron and SIP with pride. Getting passport size photos of a three year old was a little more tricky but was easier than taking them at six weeks old!

Then it became more difficult. I did have a family book for Joseph from the UK. A red book that includes his growth charts, immunisation record etc. I felt pretty sure that this was not what was meant. So a trip to the health centre and a very pleasant doctor later and I emerged with an ‘informe de salut de l’escolar‘ – a health information for school form. He very much took my word for most things thank goodness whilst also doing some basic checks on Joseph such as weight and height. With the obligatory stamp applied with a flourish, I had another certificate to add to my collection.

The ‘certificate from his current school’ had me perplexed. I assumed this might be something from his present nursery to say that he had matriculated. The guarderia very kindly produced a letter as evidence but this was never asked for.

I should add that when the May 6 came round I also took with me photocopies of passports, marriage certificates, birth certificates and anything else I could think of. Just in case.

Step 3: Completing the application form

The reception area was quiet when we returned in May and there was no need to take one of the little tickets for ‘su turno’. But would I have all the correct forms and in sufficient quantity? The receptionist went through my documents and helped me complete the ‘Solicitud de admission en educacion infantil‘. There were three spaces for us to indicate which schools we wanted Joseph to go to in order of preference. Overall, it was surprisingly painless, she was very reassuring and then we just needed to wait.

Step 4: Lists and more lists

On June 1 the provisional list would indicate whether Joseph had a place or not. It was posted outside the school and I felt almost as nervous approaching it as I did my ‘A’ level results. Fortunately, the outcome was much better. Joseph’s name was there, if perilously close to the bottom. Now I had to wait for the provisional to become the final list.

One week later and his place was confirmed.

Step 5: Looking around

On the June 15, I arrived to find a congregation of parents in the school hall. This time without my translator I found myself floundering in rapid Spanish. However, the tour spoke for itself and I found myself impressed by the cleanliness of the school, the behaviour of the children and the general friendliness off everyone we met. Our guided tour included the school kitchen – a stop that you would be unlikely to make in an English school.

This was an environment I could see Joseph in and I experienced that great heave of sentimentality mixed with relief that you feel when your youngest starts school.

Step 6: Confirmation

We were given one week in which to accept the offer of a place. A return trip to reception and a few more questions to answer. Contact details, copies of our passports and some queries about his health. He now had a place and I could look forward to/dread the second week in September. We were told that his teacher would ring us to confirm the exact date and time he would start. She did and my Spanish was just sufficient for me to catch the date and time he would need to be in school. The process over, his education begins.

Compulsory age of starting school


Northern Ireland


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Some general tips for enrolment

Start in plenty of time – make your initial enquiries around February / March
Ask people locally but don’t rely on their advice as things might have changed since they enrolled their child
Approach the school with an interpreter if your Spanish is weak – this is not something you can afford to get wrong
Be prepared to supply the names of three schools in case you don’t get your first choice
Make sure all your documents are in good order in plenty of time – no matter what some people say you cannot guarantee getting your padron overnight or even in more than a month in my case – you have to allow for going to the wrong office / at the wrong time / with the wrong document

This article is the second in a three-part series on the education of expat children in Spanish schools. The first is here: Expat kids in Spanish schools: The best days of their lives?

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