The Spanish education system: An overview


One important decision, if you’re moving to Spain with family, is how to ensure that your children have the best possible education. As an expat family, you have several options, including paying for private, international schooling, which is often offered in English, or integrating fully into the state education system. The Spanish state education system overall is considered to perform around the average level of other OECD countries. Outcomes in maths are slightly below average, but there are improvements being made, and some aspects of the schooling system have recently undergone reform.

Many expat families moving to Spain, choose to enrol their children in the local state system, which allows them to become a full part of the community, and brush up their Spanish. However, as you'd expect, there’s variation between institutions in the quality of schooling, and what’s right for your family will be a very personal decision. If you’re considering your options, you can compare the standard of education in Spain with that available in your home country, with the PISA assessment framework from the OECD.

Whatever stage of the journey you’re at - whether you’ve already got your Spanish work visa, or are just starting to think about life overseas, it helps to know a little about the options in Spain, so you can make an informed decision.

Here is a quick guide to get you started.

The Spanish education system

Pre-school (which is optional), is offered from age three, in Spain, with compulsory schooling (Educación Primaria) starting from the age of six. After primary school, which lasts six years, children move on to High School (El Instituto) at about 12.

Students move up a grade as long as they’ve achieved the required level. If they fall short, they can be held back. It’s common for children who don’t speak Spanish to initially be placed in a class lower than their grade level, to focus on language acquisition, before moving back to the appropriate class later.

It's worth remembering that school places in the Spanish state system, are usually allocated based on where you live. School types and quality vary, so if you have some flexibility in housing, it it a good idea to find a school you like first, and then choose a home in the correct catchment area. Alternatively you can choose a fee paying school, which may be fully private, or a private school which receives some public funding. Although there’s no league table of schools produced in Spain, the newspaper El Mundo provides a view on the top 100 Spanish schools on an annual basis, and is a good place to start.

Educación Infantil(Pre-school)

Optional for ages 3 - 6

Pre-school education is offered free, although places are limited

Educación Primaria(Primary School)

Compulsory from age 6 - 12 for all children

Education at primary level is free

El Instituto - Educación Secundaria Obligatoria / Bachillerato(Secondary School)

Secondary school is compulsory from age 12 to 16, known as Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO)

At 16, students can choose to stay in school to pursue the two year Bachillerato programme, to take vocational training, or to leave the education system entirely

Preschool (Educación Infantil)

Up to the age of three, children can attend a nursery, known as a guardería. Fees are charged for this, and it’s not compulsory, although many Spanish children are enrolled in nursery from the age of two or three. You can expect to pay around 500 euros a month, although some places will be subsidised and therefore cheaper.

In theory children from age three should be given a place in a state school, which is free to attend. However, in some local areas there are insufficient places, meaning that families turn to private education. Some 30% of Spaniards chose to educate their children in the private sector. Children are introduced to more ‘academic’ pursuits aged four and five, including learning to read and write.

Because education is managed in part at a local level, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the process for application to Spanish schools in your own autonomous region. Here you can also find details of available scholarships and financial support for school materials.

Primary School (Educación Primaria)

From the age of six, it’s compulsory to attend primary school in Spain. This stage of schooling is provided free of charge.

Primary school lasts for 6 grades, and the curriculum is broad, covering basic skills, physical education and languages. It’s compulsory to learn Castilian, and in regions where there’s a second official language, such as Catalan, this is also taught. An additional foreign language usually also features, often English. Religious education, which is based on the Catholic faith, is taught in all schools but parents can opt out of the classes on behalf of their children.

Secondary School (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria / Bachillerato)

Secondary education is mandatory to the age of 16, at which stage students can decide to stay on to pursue a further two years of theBachillerato programme. There’s a fairly high drop out rate in Spain compared to European averages, with quite a proportion of children failing to complete even their mandatory education. However, the numbers of children leaving school early are falling.

The secondary curriculum includes some compulsory subjects like Spanish language and literature, mathematics, geography, history, a foreign language and physical education. Students can then also select from some optional subjects including music, technology, a second foreign language and social studies.

In general Spanish state secondary schools are seen to have a more relaxed atmosphere than in some other countries, with families also playing a role in helping their children’s education. At 16, assuming that students have met the required levels and passed exams, they are given a certificate of graduating, before choosing whether or not to continue their studies for a further two years. Vocational training is offered to students who don’t want to pursue the Bachillerato, although neither option is mandatory.

What’s the typical school calendar and hours?

The school year in the Spanish state system runs from September to June, although the exact dates vary slightly according to the specific school preferences. The year is usually split into three terms, and schools close for public holidays and festivals. The normal school day will last seven hours, but schools can set their own timetable depending on the age of the students. This might mean that students have a long lunch break, or end the day early during some periods of the year.

All of the details of the school calendar in your area can be found on the website of your own autonomous region.

What’s the cost of education?

There are fees charged for nursery education under the state system, as well as additional costs for uniforms, transport and school materials. If you don’t choose the state system and decide to find a private or international school, the costs are also high.

Spain has many private and international schools, teaching in English and other major world languages, and often using either the International Baccalaureate syllabus, or a variant of the United States standard curriculum. In areas where there’s a large international community, other educational systems are also available at government approved foreign schools, offering British GCSEs, for example.

International schools in Spain are generally of a high standard, and therefore typically competitive, with testing and interviews to secure admission. You can expect the fees to vary widely depending on the specific school and the programme they offer. At fully private schools, the annual fees will run from about 4000 euros to more than double this - and all extras like materials, uniform and one off registration fees, must be added, too.

Whichever route you decide is best for your family, there will be costs involved, and you don’t want to pay over the odds. If you’re funding your child’s education from your account back home, use Transferwise to get the real exchange rate and cut out expensive international bank transfer fees.

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