Education in Spain is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. The school year dates (set annually), usually run from the middle of September until the middle of June. There are 3 terms of roughly 11 weeks each.
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 2 weeks of holiday over Christmas, 2 weeks over Easter and a long summer holiday of around 11–12 weeks. There is plenty of debate as to whether this break is too long and that children forget what they have learned, whilst working parents may be forced into paying for child care support for their children.
The timetable at public schools is usually 7 hours a day, Monday-Friday, but varies slightly depending on the school, the region and the age of the children. Starting times in the morning vary. Primary schools usually begin at 9 am but in Secondary the norm is 8 am. This works well in the summer, as it is cooler and light but in the Winter, children are often going to school in the dark.
It is compulsory to learn Castilian Spanish at all schools, even where Spanish is not the main language. In regions with other languages, it is also compulsory to learn the co-official language – for example, Catalan in Catalonia. In addition, children must learn a foreign language, which in many cases is English.
Spanish public schooling is free for children from 3 to 18 years and there are also various private schooling options in Spain.
Stages of Education in Spain
There are 4 stages of education in Spain.
- Nursery and pre-school (educación infantil) – optional
- Primary (educación or escuela primaria) – compulsory
- Compulsory secondary education (educación secundaria obligatoria)
- Upper secondary education (bachillerato) – optional
Nursery Education in Spain (Guarderías).
Nurseries principally offer supervised low-cost childcare, rather than necessarily focusing on the child’s development, though class sizes can be very small. However they can be useful in helping your child to integrate into society and learn Spanish. Bare in mind that public schooling is almost entirely in Spanish so it is highly important for your child to be able to speak Spanish.
Infant Education in Spain (Educación Infantil)
Although Infant school in Spain is voluntary, most children attend, starting from the age 3 and continuing until age 6, when compulsory education at Primary school begins. The public pre-schools aim to prepare young children for social integration within the school environment by emphasising development in several areas:
- Emotional development
- Movement and body control learning
- Communication and language – including learning letters & numbers
- Basic guidelines of co-existence and social relations
- Achieving a balanced and positive image of themselves and acquiring personal autonomy
Infants schools in Spain, offer lessons in basic reading, writing and mathematics, as well as playing in team games and developing creativity through arts and crafts, painting and music. Emphasis is also given to developing civic behaviour, the environment, cultural integration, cycling and road safety awareness. Children are sometimes taken on supervised outings, roped together in small groups (for their safety).
Primary (Elementary) Education in Spain (Escuela Primaria)
Primary education in Spain goes from 6 to 12 years with three two-year stages
- Primer ciclo – age 6–8 years (Years 1 & 2)
- Segundo ciclo – 8–10 years (Years 3 & 4)
- Tercer ciclo – 10–12 years (Years 5 & 6)
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 across all the stages of school education. Grades are:
- Insuficiente (IN) – Insufficient
- Suficiente (SU) – Sufficient
- Bien (BI) – Good
- Notable (NT) – Very good
- Sobresaliente (SB) – Outstanding
Children must reach the required stage after each period, evaluated by numerous tests and examinations. If they do not the norm is that they will have to repeat a year. Spain has the highest rate of students repeating years in Europe across all stages of education.
It is common for pupils to attend classes during the school holidays to catch up and or prepare for resits of exams.
Maximum class sizes are 25 with most teaching done by a class tutor. 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.
Secondary Education in Spain (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria – ESO)
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.
Again, students are assessed regularly and may have to repeat a year if they don’t reach the expected level of attainment.
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 Deescolaridad / Escolarización) and finish their school education at this point.
Upper Secondary education in Spain
Although not compulsory, students can continue their education by studying for university entrance, or entering vocational studies. Many schools only have students from 6 to 16, so many go to a different school at this point. Students can select their preferred choices on a 1 down to 5 basis. Selection is based on a scored points system – the catchment area of the school – i.e the student living in that area, whether they have siblings at the school, come from a large family or lone parent (more points).
At 16, students can study for 2 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
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 – Selectividad.
To undertake the state-supervised Selectivad, 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% of their final aggregate mark and their Selectividad 40%. 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 2 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.
University Education in Spain
In Spain there are a much greater number of private universities than for example the UK, where there are only two.
It can be easier to get into private colleges than public, and it is important to remember that like International Schools, they are for profit businesses. Fees are considerably higher and match those of the now barely subsidised degrees in the UK. Just as tuition fees levels are around £9000 in the UK, private Spanish colleges charge the same or even more. The state system on the other hand has much greater subsidies in place, although this varies between the autonomous regions and the political balance of the area.
In Andalucia, student fees for a humanities or arts courses are around €1,000 per year. So if your child was going to study in Spain, they are not going to finish their degree with a heavy student debt on their back. Nevertheless, there are no maintenance loans, or grants that are means tested like they are in the UK. This makes it difficult for poorer students to ‘go away’ to university, leaving them with no option but to attend the local one and live at home.
There tends to be a more interesting range of courses in private universities with better facilities, whereas in the state system higher education remains rather traditional. Indeed compared to the UK, where if you wanted to study for example, Media, you could choose from around 600 degrees, in Spain you would probably struggle to find 30, and most of those are in the private sector.
University degrees are divided into units and a student takes a certain number of units each year. As with school education the system still remains strongly punitive in its assessment processes. If a student takes 8 units in Year 1 and fails 3, they do not progress fully to Year 2. They may be able to start taking some Year 2 units, but they will have to repeat those units they failed in their entirety and resit. Each time they do this their course fees for that unit go up. It is not unusual in Spain for a degree that is scheduled to to be 3 years of study, to take 5 or 6.