The Spanish school system
If you’re planning on settling in Spain with family and you don’t want to enrol your children in an international school, here’s what you need to know:
Educación Infantil – non-obligatory ‘infant education’
Divided into two phases, from 0 to 3 years old, and from 3 to 6 years old, ‘infant education’ in Spain roughly corresponds with that in other countries, though there are some important differences.
The first phase is nursery school. While state nurseries do exist, most families will have to pay for the service, and many nurseries are privately run. Class sizes are generally small, but one nursery will vary considerably from the next, so hunt around for one that best suits your ideals.
The second phase, from 3 to 6 years old, is when school starts proper. Though the whole phase is non-obligatory, the majority of kids will start at 3, and, at 6, will be better prepared for starting obligatory education. Another reason for taking advantage of the system at this point is that, from now on, unlike nurseries, infant school is practically free, though you will have to buy some materials, and, at private schools, may be asked for a tax-deductible donation. This is not the place where you drop your kid for a few hours to get the shopping done! It’s where you children will begin to develop a routine, and learn to adapt and socialize with other children.
Educación Primaria – obligatory ‘primary school’ lasting 6 years
Primary school in Spain lasts a little more than in many other countries, taking children from 6 years old right up to 12. You’ll will find that the majority of Spanish primary schools are bilingual, most bilingual Spanish-English, although some teach French, Catalan and other languages. As well as providing direct language lessons, the approach is also to teach various other subjects and content through the second language, such as maths, sports, natural and social sciences, music, arts and craft, religion – especially in religious charter schools called ‘concertados’. Another third language is then taught later on, so that children starting with English, in a bilingual Spanish-English, may then be given, for example, French lessons, though this third language is not used as a vehicle for other subjects.
Educación Secundaria – ‘secondary school’ lasting another 6 years
Secondary education starts at 12 years old and runs right up to 18, though children can also leave at 16, walking away with the qualification of ‘Educación Secundaria Obligatoria’ (ESO), that is ‘Obligatory Secondary Education’.
Those that decide to continue can take another 2 years to work up to obtaining the qualification of ‘Bachillerato’, or ‘baccalauréat’, equivalent to a high-school diploma or set of A-levels in the UK.
The Spanish education system is thus similar to other countries in the total number of years, though is divided up rather differently.
For infant and primary education, there are two competing models here in Spain, depending on the region, the first from 9 am to 1 pm, and then from 3 to 5pm, and the second from 9 am straight through to 2 pm. This rather short timetable is balanced out by not having half-term holidays, and so children are in school for roughly the same total hours per year as in other countries. To accommodate working parents and extend the day out a little top and tail, there is an ‘aula matinal’, or morning class, with some basic activities, and often a ‘comedor’, or luncheon service. However, at least in Granada, many children simply do not make use of these services, but rather rely on grandparents, family and friends to take up the slack.
But what the heck do children do the rest of the day?
Extracurricular activities! In Spain, they are particularly fond of clubs and outside activities, such as extra classes of English, music, dance, football, yoga, photography, tennis, swimming … practically anything you could think of! And for parents, what does this all mean? Well, (1) running about lots and juggling the various activities of siblings, (2) making sure you or someone else is available to do (1), and (3) paying an arm and a leg for all of it! The upside of this model is that kids and parents can freely choose from an unbelievably wide range of activities. The downside is that it discriminates against poorer families, since adding up a few days a week may well tot up to around 200 Euros per month per child, not to mention the costs of petrol, transport or simply time off work.
School runs from mid-September to mid-June, finishing earlier and resuming a little later than in many other countries. But let’s not forget Spain’s hot climate in many of its regions. For example, when school’s out in Andalusia in June, temperatures often soar well above 30 degrees Celsius. The side effect of the longer summer is less holidays in the school calendar, there being only two main holiday periods, Christmas and Easter. Children usually celebrate the last day of school on the Friday before Christmas and are back just after Epiphany, that is the 6th of January, here celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem often with a street procession, hand-thrown sweets and presents at home. The Easter holidays last at least a week, sometimes more depending on the region. Added to these longer holidays are shorter national, regional, provincial and local holidays, often long weekends – off on Thursday or Friday and back on Monday or Tuesday.
Different types of school
Like elsewhere, Spain has both state schools and private, but it is also has another category, the ‘concertado’, that is essentially charter schools partly funded by the state, partly funded by the church and partly funded, to a lesser extent, by parents. At a national level, it is estimated that 65% of children are educated in state schools, 27% in charter schools and 8% in private schools. However, numbers vary greatly from region to region. For example, in Granada, the city not the province, it’s the other way round, far more children attend charter schools than state or private schools. It is important to remember that places in many charter schools, and even in some state schools, are strictly limited according to a points system that accounts for where you live, where you work, the number of children you have, and so on. So, if you live in the south of the city, you probably won’t be able to enrol your child at a school in the north.
School books usually don’t come free or cheap, though, during the last financial crisis, a book ‘cheque’, or voucher, scheme was introduced for public and charter schools. This regional government aid, which does not cover all of the required books, is given indiscriminately to all pupils enrolled at a school, though not every year. Other school materials, such as pens and pencil cases, are not supplied, and, therefore, come September, families get a long list of things to buy for each school subject in the curriculum. At charter and private schools, there are other costs to consider, some optional and others not so, such as a resident doctor service, an ad-hoc app service for communicating with teachers, school uniforms, sports kits, extra-curricular activities, early morning class, lunch, donations, and so on. Finally, charter schools will often require a separate tuition fee, much like private schools, for the last two years of prepping for a ‘Bachillerato’ diploma.
As in every country, the school system in Spain has its advantages and disadvantages. You can find further information on the education system on the website of the Spanish Ministry of Education (not yet fully translated in English). Welcome to Spain!