Education in Spain

This guide is about the education system in Spain - state schools, Spanish private schools and international schools. It does not cover tertiary (university) education.

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Introduction

Education in Spain is often very good, but can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. Whether your child receives a good education will be, in the main, down to the school you choose for them. Whether you go down the route of private or state education, there is a good selection of schools available in Spain.

How to choose the right type of school for your child in Spain

You have, in effect, three choices: the standard Spanish state education system, private Spanish schools (many of which will be subsidised by the State) and fully independent private schools. These fully independent private schools would include most international and foreign-language schools.

There is, at least in theory, a fourth choice. This is to educate your child at home. But it is rare that a foreigner will want (or be able to) do this, and the few people that our editor knows who have tried to go down this route have met with considerable resistance and many obstacles.

Pros and cons of state schools in Spain

Choosing an ordinary Spanish state school has many advantages and a few – sometimes serious – disadvantages.

The first problem is that, depending upon the catchment area in which you live, you may find that ‘your’ school is of good, bad or indifferent quality. If you’re thinking of going down the road of state education, you need to make sure that you buy or rent a property in an area within the catchment area of a good school. The best way of finding out about the reputation of local schools is to ask people in the area who have young children. Establishing which school your child should attend is one of the main purposes of making sure that you spend some time in Spain before you commit to the purchase of a house and a good reason for starting your time in Spain in property that you’ve rented temporarily – say, for a period of three months.

The second big problem with sending your child to a local Spanish school arises, mainly, where your children are already well advanced in the educational system. You will find that the curriculum in Spain is totally different from the curriculum in your own country. Your children will not have covered many of the things that children of their age will be expected to have grasped – and, of course, they will have studied many things that the local children will not have studied.

This can mean that your child is allocated to a more junior class – i.e. a class for children younger than its years. This can be demoralising and it can cancel out one of the great advantages of going to a local Spanish school: the ability to quickly make friends with children in the area.

It is quite a challenge for your child to take on learning about life in a new country, a new language and a new curriculum all at the same time.

You will often also find that you will not be able to assist your child nearly as much as you could ‘back home’. If they are set homework, it will be in Spanish and – quite possibly – related to a subject about which you know absolutely nothing.

Spanish schools are often something of a social hub. Many offer extensive extracurricular activities – sports, art, drama, music etc – but they do not usually offer nearly as many as you would find in private schools.

Despite all of these drawbacks, there are four overwhelming benefits to attending a good local state school in Spain.

  1. Your child will be mixing with ‘ordinary’ local Spanish children from the area in which you live. He or she will make friends quickly and learn the language in the matter of a few weeks. This is especially true if they are still young – say, eight years old or younger.
  2. They will become totally immersed in Spanish society. Attending a private school, particularly one with lots of international children, can leave them a little on the sidelines as far as Spain is concerned. There is no greater gift to your child than to make them completely and seamlessly bi-cultural. This is more than just speaking the language. It is understanding about the history and mindset of the people where you live. It is being intimately familiar with the politics and the football and the religion and the local social activities. Being totally bi-cultural also offers huge range of well-paying job opportunities.Remember that, if you want to take advantage of this, you will need to make sure that your children do not lose contact with their own roots. You will want to make sure they spend time speaking their own language, reading about and discussing their own culture and meeting many people from that culture. However, for most people this is not a problem.
  3. Having your child attend a local Spanish school helps you integrate into Spanish society. They will tell you what is going on. They will help you learn the language. They will introduce you to the parents of their friends.
  4. Of course, a final advantage of using a state school is that it is free!

It definitely helps put your child through local Spanish school if you already speak at least a little Spanish but many newcomers manage to do so without understanding a word of the language. Indeed, in places like the Costa del Sol, schools with large numbers of foreign children will often have specially trained teachers with good language skills in the most important languages in their area.

The main reason you might want to rule out a local school is if your children are older. This can make it more difficult to adapt to a new curriculum and can lose them the possibility of taking the exams for which they have been studying ‘back home’.

Pros and cons of private schools in Spain

There are a wide range of private schools available in Spain. See below for more details of those on the Costa del Sol.

Some of them offer pretty much the same facilities and opportunities as an ordinary Spanish state school but possibly have better teachers, smaller classes and/or a more ambitious educational programme. Attending a private school in Spain is very common. Across Spain, nearly half of all pupils attend such a school.

Others – particularly the international schools – cater to a different market. They are aimed squarely at the foreign parents of children living temporarily in the area or the parents of Spanish children who are likely to be travelling and working internationally. These schools offer a much wider range of study options. You are likely to be able to find a school that can offer or adapt to the curriculum and exam programme that is already being followed by your child.

International schools will almost always offer less integration into ‘normal’ Spanish society than you will get in a Spanish state school, but can balance that by giving a very broad understanding of the cultural background in many different countries.

For example, if you attended an English medium (language) international school, you may find that the other students in your class came not only from the US, the UK and other English-language countries but also from places such as France, Germany, Russia, the Middle East, Singapore and China. In addition there is likely to be a significant number of Spanish students.

Compulsory education in Spain

In Spain it is a legal requirement for children to attend school between the ages of six and 16. This covers primary education and compulsory secondary education.

Before the age of six there is often the opportunity to attend preschool/nursery school (Guarderias). See below.

After the age of 16 there are opportunities for further secondary education, graduate and post-graduate education but this is subject to the child’s ability.

School hours in Spain

School hours across Spain can vary. Some schools run from 9:00-17:00 (with a two-hour lunch break). Others may begin and end as early as 7:00 and 14:00. Check the school’s website or call them up to find out.

School uniforms in Spain

School uniforms are not compulsory for schools in Spain. They are uncommon in state schools and far more common in private schools (especially religious schools).

State education in Spain

The Spanish curriculum

The Spanish Ministry of Education has details of the Spanish curriculum from pre-school through to the end of secondary school. You can view it here. Use the drop-down list in the top right-hand corner to select your language.

Catchment areas

Your child is unlikely to be able to attend a school outside of their catchment area. You can ask your local town hall for a list of schools within the catchment area. If you’re considering a move to Spain, this is an important factor when deciding where to buy or rent a house. Check out the local schools before committing.

You can also use this search tool to find schools in your desired area. Just type in your town name or postcode.

Registering for a state school in Spain

To register your child, you may need to show the school your child’s passport, proof that they’ve been vaccinated and proof of your address (usually a utility bill, title deed or rental agreement).

You can find your local state schools on this web page (it’s in Spanish – but just enter your postcode).

Every school is limited as to the number of children it can register and applications are taken on a first come, first served basis. It is therefore important that you allow adequate time to arrange your children’s education.

The quality of state education in Spain

State education in Spain has improved dramatically in the last couple of decades, although it still sits below the OECD average.

Preschool/guarderias

It’s compulsory for children to attend school from the age of six, but most parents in Spain will take advantage of the preschool system available.

Preschool in Spain is split into two cycles: 0-3 years old (which is not free) and 3-6 years old (which is free).

Guarderias are nursery schools for children aged 0-3. It’s not unusual for Spanish children to attend these institutions from just a few months old.

Spaces in guarderias can be difficult to secure, so it’s advisable to start the process before you move (or before your child is born).

Bi-lingual nurseries have popped up across many parts of Spain, including the Costa del Sol, in response to the huge population of expats. Angloinfo has compiled a good list of the English-speaking guarderias available in the region. Most towns and even villages will have a nursery/kindergarden, but not all will have a bilingual institution.

Spanish preschool isn’t heavily focused on academia – their main advantages are allowing parents to return to work with minimal childcare costs and, in the case of foreign children, integration into the Spanish culture and language.

The curriculum for pre-school students focuses on:

  • Language and communication
  • Self-knowledge and personal autonomy
  • Knowledge of environment and surroundings

See more details here.

If there aren’t enough free places in a pre-school, priority for admission can be boosted by the following criteria:

  • Previous enrolment of siblings in the school, or a parent or guardian working in the school
  • Close proximity of the home or workplace of a parent or guardian
  • A low annual income for the family (calculated keeping the size of the family in mind)
  • Disability (in the case of the student or a parent or guardian)

Primary school

Primary school, from the age of six to 12 years old, is where compulsory education in Spain begins. A child will start school in the calendar year in which they turn six years old.

Students will get a grounding in Spanish, mathematics, foreign languages, culture and physical education.

See more details on the Spanish primary school curriculum here.

Students will be continuously evaluated so that poorly performing children can be given additional support.

The grades are as follows:

  • Infufficient (Insuficiente) – IN
  • Sufficient (Suficiente) – SU
  • Good (Bien) – BI
  • Excellent (Notable ) – NT
  • Outstanding (Sobresaliente) – SB

Learning disabilities or other mitigating factors are taken into account.

At the end of the third year and the end of the sixth year of primary school, students will be more formally assessed and graded. Only an Insuficiente grade will mean that your child will have to repeat a year at school. This is not a common outcome.

When your child graduates primary school, their school records (including evaluation grades, average scores in individual subjects etc) will be passed on to the school they are graduating to. You can request a copy of these records.

If there aren’t enough places available in a primary school, priority for admission can be boosted by the following criteria:

  • Previous enrolment of siblings in the school, or a parent or guardian working in the school
  • Close proximity of the home or workplace of a parent or guardian
  • A low annual income for the family (calculated keeping the size of the family in mind)
  • Disability (in the case of the student or a parent or guardian)
  • Coming from a preschool that is attached to the primary school
  • If the family has moved to the catchment area as a result of ‘forced movement’ or domestic violence

Secondary school

Secondary school (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria) is for children between the ages of 12-16. It is divided into two ‘cycles’ – from 12-14 and 14-16.

Throughout compulsory secondary education, students will study the ‘core’ subjects – Spanish language and literature, physical education, mathematics, history, geography and a foreign language. There are also optional subjects such as natural science, technology and religious education. See this page for a more detailed look at the curriculum.

Students in secondary education are also regularly tested and assessed and may find themselves repeating a school year if they are not deemed up to standards – this means failing three or more subjects, or failing both Spanish and mathematics.

After these four years, compulsory education ends. Students are awarded either a graduate certificate of secondary education, (Graduado en Educación Secundaria), or ESO, which allows them to continue onto their bachillerato from 16-18 and then onto university; or a school certificate (certificado de escolaridad/escolarización), which allows students to carry on into vocational studies.

If there aren’t enough places available in a secondary school, priority for admission can be boosted by the following criteria:

  • Previous enrolment of siblings in the school, or a parent or guardian working in the school
  • Close proximity of the home or workplace of a parent or guardian
  • A low annual income for the family (calculated keeping the size of the family in mind)
  • Disability (in the case of the student or a parent or guardian)
  • Coming from a preschool that is attached to the primary school
  • If the family has moved to the catchment area as a result of ‘forced movement’ or domestic violence

High school/bachillerato

Education from 16-18 is not compulsory, but is necessary if your child wants to go to university. A bachillerato course will continue teaching ‘core’ subjects, but focus on one of three areas:

  • Arts
  • Science & technology
  • Humanities and social sciences

You can see more details here.

Vocational studies

You can view some options for vocational studies here (page in Spanish but translates well through Google Translate).

Private education in Spain

As in most countries, Spanish private schools hold advantages: smaller class sizes, better support for special needs, a better reputation (and therefore an easier ride getting into the university of your choice).

Spanish private schools are state-subsidised and can thus be much cheaper than international private schools (see below). They can cost less than €1,000 a year. However, remember that these fees will have to be supplemented by meal costs and school supplies, which can quickly mount up.

They will teach the Spanish curriculum, entirely in Spanish. They are therefore perhaps not the best idea for older children – but can be a fantastic learning environment for younger children, who will soak up the language relatively quickly and easily.

Many private schools are Catholic, though most will be mixed-gender. Most are day-schools, though you will find some that accept boarders.

International schools on the Costa del Sol

International schools will teach the curriculum of the country they cater to.

The international schools on the Costa del Sol are numerous, of a high standard and very popular with expats on the Costa del Sol. They may be a particularly good choice for your child if they are already a while into their education (and may therefore struggle with an entirely new environment in a new language).

They are, however, pretty expensive – although still cheap compared to international schools in Northern Europe. Fees can range from around €4,000 per year to closer to €10,000 per year.

 

 

 NameTown/CityCurriculum
Den Norske SkolenBenalmadenaNorwegian
International School EsteponaEsteponaEnglish
Colegio FinlandésFuengirolaFinnish
Svenska SkolanFuengirolaSwedish
Lycée FrançaisMalagaFrench
Sunland International SchoolMalaga (North-West of the city)English
Aloha CollegeMarbellaEnglish
Deutsche SchuleMarbellaGerman
The English International CollegeMarbellaEnglish
Svenska Skolan MarbellaMarbellaSwedish
Laude San Pedro International CollegeSan PedroEnglish
Mayfair International AcademySan PedroEnglish
Sotogrande International SchoolSotograndeEnglish
Sunny View SchoolTorremolinosEnglish

Applying for a private or international school

Do this as far in advance as possible. Most good private schools will have waiting lists.

You will probably have to provide previous grades and school reports, as well as identification and proof of residence.

Expats’ Tips

It can be hit and miss in the standard Spanish state schools. You try to enrol your child into School A or School B, because you certainly don’t want them going to School Z. The standard of education at School Z is not what you would want. That would appear to me to be less common in Ireland, where the standard doesn’t vary tremendously.

Gerry O Brien, Dublin, Ireland

Conclusion

You’ve got a lot of choice when it comes to educating your children in Spain. Whether you decide to send your child to state, private or an international school, it’s imperative that you do your research before deciding. Have a look on expat forums, ask any friends you may have in the area and, if possible, visit several schools before making a decision.

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