Spanish Education System

Location

Choosing the Area for Your Family to Live In

One of the major worries for families considering a move to Spain is how they will cope with a new language and culture and how to obtain a good education for their children.

Before buying a specific property, if you have children you must consider the type of school and educational needs of those children and whether the property you are considering buying is in an area that allows you the right choice of schooling and language instruction. The location of your house determines which education authority you are within and which state run schools the authority will allow your children to attend. There are four major Spanish languages taught in Spain in addition to the national Castilian language.

Problem Areas

Some problems have arisen in Spanish schools that are located in towns with a high number of different ethnic foreign nationals. In some state schools Spanish children can find themselves in the minority, with a preponderance of either English or East European languages being spoken. One can imagine the tremendous difficulty faced by the teachers endeavouring to maintain academic standards and discipline whilst being unable to converse with the majority of pupils in a common language. This is not only a problem for your child but is a major cause of a reduced quality of education for the local Spanish children. It can also increase the possibility of bullying.

Carry out proper research of the area and its facilities before you buy.

Language

Pre-move Language Tuition

I would most strongly advise that anyone considering bringing a young family to live in Spain should invest in attending Spanish lessons, preferably for at least a year before the event. In particular children need this to assist them in integration at their new school.

Very many people say kids easily assimilate a new language; they sop it up like a sponge. True in very many cases but it is not just language they have to cope with. The teaching curriculum will be different and most of the teachers will not speak English. If a child has a problem, educational or personal, she/he will have difficulty in explaining what is wrong and can easily feel aggrieved or totally out of place. Many state schools serve school meals (they do not allow a child to take sandwiches); they will serve only Spanish food which in some cases will be unpalatable to the taste but as is normal in Spain, she/he will still be encouraged to eat the meal.

If the child is young enough to attend Spanish Pre-school, this will probably not be such a problem but the older they are, the more important and difficult it becomes. Imagine you yourself at age 8, 10 or 13 attending a school where you cannot understand even simple instructions or talk to a fellow pupil. For your child it could be very unsettling and could cause belligerency or make them withdraw into themselves.

Read my article Learning Spanish to review some of the options available before moving to Spain and once settled in your new Spanish home.

The Language Used for Instruction in Spanish Schools

In most Spanish state schools the principal language used to deliver classes will be Castilian Spanish. However, in some regions you will find this is replaced by a combination of Castilian and the co-official language(s) of the region. For instance where I live, in the Autonomous Community of Valencia (which comprises the provinces of Valencia, Alicante and Castellon) much of the teaching is in a combination of Castilian and Valenciana, schools offering different programmes with some schools teaching almost exclusively in Castilian, others giving tuition in both languages whilst yet others place the main emphasis on Valenciana.

Émigrés considering moving to Spain with school aged children should ensure they fully understand the educational needs of their children and check which language programme is in place at which school in the prospective property area. Choice is limited in some circumstances. Parents sometimes overlook how large Spain is and if in a few years the child is likely to travel or seek employment abroad or beyond the boundaries of their home region in Spain then Castilian could be far more useful.

This confusion of languages is due to the era of Franco when the use of regional languages was outlawed, a very good policy commercially but very unpopular with large portions of the indigenous populations in the various regions. Since the reign of King Carlos the schools have considerable autonomy on the teaching language used.

When choosing where to live in Spain émigrés with children need to give the educational language serious consideration.

Teachers employed in the state sector (including Concertados) do not necessarily speak English and in any event lessons are not taught in English. If English is taught as a foreign language (which is mostly the case) then there will be an English teacher at the school whose main job is to teach English as a modern foreign language.

The following is a general impression of the Spanish education system

State Funded Schools

In most parts of Spain, state funded schooling is available for children from the age of three until sixteen. There are three phases:

Pre School from age 3 until 5 is voluntary.
Primary School 6 until 11 and
Secondary School 11 until 16 are mandatory.

At 16 and subject to the academic qualification reached, pupils are awarded a graduation certificate and are eligible to attend a higher secondary school to study for a University entrance exam. University places are granted to students who have attained appropriate qualifications and passed the entrance examination.

Vocational Training

Less gifted students who have not attained the necessary qualifications by age 16 are awarded a school certificate and may attend a 2 year vocational training school with the opportunity to train for such careers in clerical, secretarial, electronics, IT, telecoms or additional foreign language training, etc. Attendance for the first year is compulsory.

Homework

In Primary School, homework is at the discretion of individual class teachers but may commence from the first year.

At Secondary School there is usually an increasingly heavy load of homework and extra studying for exams which requires considerable self-discipline on the part of students if they wish to do well at school.

In particular, for children who have moved to Spain in the middle of primary school or later, causing them to have had a slower start in learning Spanish, it is going to be even more difficult. Teachers in Spain generally assume that parents will involve themselves in helping their children with homework. Are you as a parent going to learn so that the child has someone at home to help? I am retired and find the learning difficult, yet my wife has taken it in her stride and thoroughly enjoys the challenge.

Many Spanish parents whose children have had a slow start engage a private tutor for an hour each evening to assist the child. It is worth serious consideration.

The school teachers also make themselves available one hour a week to speak to parents about their children's progress. If at all possible you need to take advantage of this facility. Find a friend who speaks Spanish to go along with you. The teachers also hold parent meetings at the end of term to discuss class work, projects and extra curricular outings. Here again you need to go along to show your support and interest. You will also gain from this as you will meet other parents, some of whom will be interested in trying out their basic English. It is the start of becoming integrated. As I have said before the best thing about Spain is the friendliness of its people.

Pre School

Pre school (age 3 to 5) these schools are run by specially trained and dedicated teachers. Attendance is totally optional and places are highly valued by most parents. Provision depends on availability within the area where you live. There are also many privately run nursery and infant schools.

The main aim of state Pre School education is to prepare young children for social integration within a school group environment, produce personal awareness and improve co-ordination leading on to integrated class activities, lessons in basic arts and craft, painting, music, team games and learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I also understand that it is the intention of the National Education Authority to add the teaching of English and/or French to the curriculum of all preschool education. The Authority also places emphasis during infant and primary education on all aspects of civic behaviour, conservation and ecology, cultural integration and road awareness. Many school playgrounds are marked out to allow cycle training with signs showing Halt, Stop, One Way, No Entry, etc.

It has been found that children not having had the advantage of this Pre-School environment are more likely to have difficulty in their primary school years.

In addition to the above there are some state Pre Schools which are operated more as a crèche or playschool, offering little real preparation towards primary education and are often used by working mothers as low cost safe and supervised childcare centres.

Primary School

Primary Students study the following subjects: Spanish language, Maths, Conocimiento del Medio (a general knowledge subject which includes biology, history, geography, general and local knowledge and social awareness), Physical Education, Art and Craft and a second language (usually English but in some areas it may be French.) Where English is the subject it is taught by a specialist but there is no obligation for the pupil's own class teacher to speak English. The local dialect and culture may also be taught as a subject.

The state system also provides support teams consisting of a psychologist, social worker and speech therapist which are shared by several schools. Children normally have the same class teacher for each two-year cycle.

Secondary School

From age 12 children move on to Secondary school (El Instituto). The Spanish secondary system is modelled loosely on the British comprehensive system and offers complete mixed ability schooling. The first four years are called "la E.S.O." (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria). Children can leave school at 16 or at an earlier age if they complete the exams earlier. The ESO is divided into two cycles of two years each with the same system of repeated years at the end of each cycle as occurs in Primary education. Recently introduced is the possibility of repeating the first year of the ESO if the standard of maths or Spanish language is not sufficiently high.

A wide range of secondary subjects are taught including natural science, social science, maths, Spanish language, art, music, French, English, sports and technology. Recent additions include the introduction of project work, continuous assessment and a more up-to-date and relevant syllabus. However, much still depends on the approach of individual teachers.

The atmosphere in Spanish secondary schools is less disciplined and more relaxed than in British schools. The students, having been taught self discipline from an early age, the onus is on the child to study with the support of his or her family. Regrettably a typical reaction of a British adolescent thrown into this situation is to assume that because no one is forcing them to hand in their homework, they don't need to do so. If this is allowed by the parents, they will be in danger of failing exams and falling by the wayside academically.

Support Staff

The state system provides support teams consisting of a psychologist, social worker and speech therapist, which are shared by several schools. Children normally have the same class teacher for each two-year cycle.

University

University grants in Spain are very difficult to acquire. For many potential students even if well gifted academically, it is a matter of whether or not the family can afford to send the student to university. It is a major investment. Even so, the percentage of young people attending university in Spain is greater than in Britain. There is no fixed time period for students to complete a university course, repeating courses and even spreading out examinations over years is not uncommon. However, having to pay your own way through college tends to encourage the majority of students to either attend the university nearest to their home or a university in a town where they have a relative on whom they can rely for accommodation.

Religion

Religion normally includes teaching of the Catholic doctrine. However schools are required to offer an alternative for children preferring to opt out. This may entail sitting in with another class, in the staff room with the class teacher or attending additional Spanish lessons.

School Calendar and Time Table

The official school year calendar generally runs from mid September until the end of June, this can however vary according to the region of Spain in which you reside and the child's age group. There are many school holidays in Spain, Easter and Christmas is similar to England but other breaks are often linked to national, regional and local saints' days or a specific Fiesta. Summer holidays are usually for eight weeks but again may vary according to where one lives, particularly in the very hot regions. Bank holidays are not observed in Spain except possibly by some English run private schools.

Timetable There are two types of school timetable, depending on the local Education Authority's policy:

  • Option 1. This used to be the norm; school started at 9am then a split day allowing for a minimum of a two hour lunch break. Then back to school until 5pm. This is still used by most primary schools. Primary schools also have a reduced timetable during the months of July to September.
  • Option 2. Now adopted by the majority of secondary schools - commence school at 9am, a short break in the middle of the day and finish at 2pm. Your teenager is then free for the rest of the day.

Admission

A child's birthday in the calendar year normally dictates the date of admission. However in the case of foreign non Spanish speaking children, admission isn't always according to age, but to the educational policies of the autonomous community in which they live. Spanish educational laws allow provision for children who've not met the requisite learning objectives in a learning cycle to be able to repeat a year where necessary. This can be for just one or more specific subjects.

Registering a Child for Spanish Education

To register your children for attendance at a Spanish State school you and your family will need to be registered at the local town hall as residents. For this you will need to prove that you own or are renting a property within the area. You also need to provide the parent's identity (passport or residence card) and the child's birth certificate. In some areas you will also need proof from a Spanish doctor of the child's vaccinations and a medical certificate of health. All documents must be originals with photocopies available to be left with the local authority office. Ensure you retain the originals.

Payment for Books & Materials

Payment for books, materials and any extra-curricular activities depends on the region in which you live. In some you pay only for extra-curricular activity, in others where payment is expected, it may be possible for low income families to apply for grants.

School Uniform

Uniforms are not always mandatory, it depends on the particular school's policy. Uniforms are a fairly standard requirement in private schools.

Grant Maintained Schools

Concertado schools enjoy a similar status to British grant maintained schools, receiving subsidies from the Spanish government, and so generally do not charge tuition fees. Concertado schools actively encourage parental involvement, but generally parents find there is more opportunity to meet with teachers in Spanish state schools.

Many grant-assisted schools were originally run by religious orders, as is the Convent school opposite my property, and many still maintain a strong catholic flavour. Children usually wear school uniform and there is a perception in Spanish society that their educational standard is higher than in state schools. I have found that the local conception is that the reverse is more likely true.

Other people contend that fee-paying private schools are usually more academically demanding and tend to cater for the children of middle-class professional Spanish families.

Private Schools

British Schools and Other International Schools in Spain

If you intend to return to the UK before your children have completed their education, it may be wise to look for a school which follows the British National Curriculum, to ease re-integration into the British school system on your return. There are an increasing number of such international schools throughout Spain which offer a British style education to either A-level or the International Baccalaureate. Fees are often lower for non-boarders than in an equivalent public day school in Britain, but availability of places is limited. Further information is available from the National Association of British Schools in Spain (NABSS) as well as the European Council of International Schools (ECIS) which also has details of schools following other curricula, such as French or German. Yet other English-based international schools follow the American education system in style and curriculum

International schools generally also include part of the Spanish curriculum in their timetables

Further Information

For details of specific schools in your area, as well as details of the curriculum and qualification formats available, I would advise you to contact the following organisations:

Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC)
00 34 902 21 85 00 Fax 91 701 86 48
www.mec.es
European Council of International Schools (ECIS)
00 34 91 56267 22 Fax 91 745 1310
www.ecis.org
National Association of British Schools in Spain (NABSS)
www.nabss.org

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