Education in SPAIN

Education in SPAIN

John Carrivick, who has worked for over 30 years in education in Spain, first for the British Council and now as an independent consultant, provides Winter's readers with an overview of education in Spain...


Spain is a wonderfully diverse country.  It has a wide range of climates and cuisines, with landscapes that include orchards and green fields in the north, ski slopes in the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada, wheat fields and vineyards on the two mesetas, endless olive groves in Andalusia, and the subtropical delights of the volcanic Canary Islands.

This enormous variety is also mirrored in the many regional education administrations, and this can make the state education system seem a bewildering labyrinth to expatriate parents when moving to Spain from other countries.

Responsibility for education in Spain is shared between the central government and the 17 regional governments (autonomous communities). The central government is responsible for national qualifications and the core curriculum (55%-65% depending on the region), while the regional governments administer the education system in their region and set the remainder of the curriculum.

The biggest single difference parents will notice in state and state-supported schools in the different regions will be the language(s) of instruction.

"Over 700,000 children from other countries attend schools in Spain."

Several parts of Spain have their own local language in addition to Spanish (Castellano): Galicia (Gallego), Catalonia (Catalán), the Valencian region (Valenciano) and The Basque Country and parts of Navarra (Euskera).

Depending on the area of residence, the language of instruction may be exclusively Spanish or exclusively the local language (e.g. Catalán in Catalonia), while some regions offer a bilingual option (Spanish and the local language or Spanish and a foreign language, usually English).

In some parts of Spain, parents can choose between different options, subject to availability.

Education reform 

The state education system has undergone several changes over the last forty years, with incoming governments reversing many of the reforms instituted by previous administrations. After the latest general elections, Spain now has a minority government which is negotiating changes with opposition parties to the last education reform enacted in 2013, especially with respect to secondary education and university entrance. 

Schooling in Spain

Schooling is free and compulsory between the ages of six and 16.

All residents in Spain, regardless of nationality, are entitled to have their children educated at Spanish public and state-assisted schools, provided they first register as residents with their local town hall through a process called Empadronamiento. Over 700,000 children from other countries attend schools in Spain.

While this website has been designed with the expatriate residents of a particular town in mind, it provides a clear and comprehensive explanation of this process which is universal throughout Spain. 

Nursery and pre-school: 0-6 years – not compulsory and may or may not be supported from public funds, depending on the area.

Primary: 6-12 years  compulsory and free in state schools.

Compulsory Secondary (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria or ESO): 12-16 years – free in state schools.

Nursery pupils at King's Infant School, Charmartin

Nursery pupils at King's Infant School, Charmartin

Post-16 education

At 16 years of age, pupils can:

  • choose to stay on at school to prepare for university entrance through the Bachillerato (pre-university A-level equivalent): optional and free or subsidised in state schools;
  • enter vocational education and study for a qualification at the Ciclo Formativo de Grado Medio level (also free in state and state-subsidised centres);
  • enter the job market.

The Bachillerato has a two-year cycle and students can choose between various streams and specialisms (Arts: Plastic or Performing; Science or Technology; Humanities or Social Sciences).

All students have to study several common core subjects such as Spanish Language, Physical Education, English as a Foreign Language or Science in the Contemporary World, as well as subjects specific to their chosen stream. For example, a first-year Social Sciences student must also study Contemporary World History, Business Economics and Applied Mathematics for Social Sciences.

The triumphant football team at Sotogrande International School

The triumphant football team at Sotogrande International School

Home schooling

This is a legally grey area with several Spanish courts interpreting compulsory schooling to mean attendance at a recognised school. There are a few, parent-led initiatives to promote the legal recognition of home schooling such as the Asociación para La Libre Educación.

Types of school

The Spanish education system consists of three types of school: public, concertado and private.

Public sector schools are run by the regional government, teach the local variant of the Spanish national curriculum and are free of charge, at least between the ages of six and 16 and usually up to 18. In most parts of Spain, parents may be asked to contribute towards the cost of school trips and may have to pay for text books and school meals, although these are subsidised in many areas (means tested).

Colegios Concertados (state assisted) are private schools, often run by religious orders, who contract with the regional government to teach the local variant of the Spanish national curriculum, with some room for modification (usually in the area of religious education). In return, most of their costs, including teacher salaries, are covered from public funds. Parents can expect to buy text books and pay for excursions and extra-curricular activities but not the basic education package. They are often also asked to make a voluntary contribution.

Private schools enjoy greater freedom within the official curriculum and are financed exclusively from the fees they charge parents. Since international schools (described in greater detail below) do not teach the Spanish curriculum they are, by default, private schools and receive no support from public funds.

"All international schools in Spain must follow the curriculum of a given country and be certified by that country. "

Bilingual schools operating within the Spanish education system

Bilingual schools (trilingual where there is a regional language) are generally accepted to be schools (public and private) teaching the Spanish curriculum but with between 30% and 50% of the subjects taught through the medium of a foreign language.

Pioneered by some private schools and a handful of public sector schools under an agreement with the British Council, the number of bilingual schools has grown to well over 4,000 all over Spain, with the greatest concentrations being in Madrid and Andalusia. Competition for places is keen and can depend on both location of the family residence and income.

International Schools

All international schools in Spain must follow the curriculum of a given country and be certified by that country. Germany, France and Italy operate their own state-supported schools in Madrid, Barcelona and some other parts of Spain. These schools offer the national curriculum and qualifications of their respective countries, and the teaching is mainly through the national language.

Nevertheless, the majority of international schools in Spain are either American or British.

Pupils at The British School of Navarra on a school trip

Pupils at The British School of Navarra on a school trip

Staffing and recruitment at international schools

Teachers generally have to be qualified in accordance with the requirements of the education system concerned. In the case of British schools, candidates will need to have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) or the equivalent and they tend to come from the UK, Ireland, and other English-speaking countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Teaching posts are frequently advertised in the international section of Times Educational Supplement. All new staff are vetted through the Disclosure and Barring Service in the same way as teachers in the UK.

The ten American schools in Spain are accredited by one of the US regional bodies and a full list can be found on the US Embassy website. They are located mainly in Madrid, Barcelona or other large cities with the exception of the one close to the US military base in Rota (Cadiz).

British international schools

There are over one hundred British schools in Spain and the latest list published by the British Council can be found here.

A majority are members of the National Association of British Schools in Spain – NABSS, several are also members of the Council of British International Schools and two are members of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference.


As one might expect, many of these schools are located in areas popular with UK residents (Canaries, Balearics, Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca), although they also attract substantial numbers of Spanish children and expatriate pupils from other countries (Germany, Scandinavia, India, and more recently China, Russia and Eastern Europe).

"There are over one hundred British schools in Spain..."

More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that a large number, including some of the biggest schools, are to be found in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, where most of their pupils are recruited from the local Spanish community.

There is a small sprinkling of British schools in other parts of the country.

With some exceptions, schools are usually to be found on the outskirts of towns and cities, and parents can expect to have to ferry their children in each day or pay for a school bus service.


Over the years, British schools have proved themselves to expatriate and Spanish parents, offering high-quality child-centred education in addition to making their children highly fluent in English.

While these schools have to devote some class time to the Spanish/local language, history and culture, most of the timetable is devoted to the English National Curriculum, taught and assessed through the medium of English.

Primary pupils at King's College School, La Moraleja

Primary pupils at King's College School, La Moraleja

Foreign schools have to be certified by their respective home countries. Most British schools are inspected through a system operated by NABSS and monitored by the British Council and an independent UK inspector. All inspection reports since Sept 2014 are available on this British Council webpage.

Increasingly, some of the larger schools are instead opting for inspection under the British Schools Overseas scheme operated by the UK Department for Education, and the resulting inspection reports are published on the DfE website.


From Key Stage 3 onwards, most pupils prepare for the same examinations as their UK counterparts – GCSEs, AS and A levels, or their International equivalents from UK boards such as Cambridge International Examinations, Pearson (Edexcel) or AQA.

Some schools offer the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to UK qualifications.

Many British schools in Spain have an impressive record for getting their sixth-formers into prestigious universities in the UK and around the world. This is particularly noteworthy when English is not the first language of many of the successful candidates.

"Many British schools in Spain have an impressive record for getting their sixth-formers into prestigious universities in the UK and around the world."

What can parents expect to pay?

Fees vary widely by level of education and region. As a rule, fees rise as children move higher up the school.

Parents in coastal areas or in the Balearic and Canary Islands can expect to pay anywhere between €4,000 and €10,000 per annum, but if they live in Madrid or Barcelona, they will have to dig deeper as fees can be anywhere in a range from €7,000 to 13,000 each year.

In addition, there will be extras such as transport, school meals, co-curricular activities and excursions.

University entrance

When faced with different education options, one important factor for parents will be the impact their choice has on their children’s chances of getting into university.

Spanish universities 

School-leavers with the Spanish Bachillerato have to sit a local university entrance examination called the Evaluación para el Acceso a la Universidad (EvAU). A weighted average of the Bachillerato and EvAU marks is calculated to give a final mark on a scale between zero and 10 with a minimum of five needed to enter university, although individual course requirements may be much higher.

In the case of high demand courses such as Medicine, the entry mark is usually between 10 and 14. Applicants for these courses need to sit a second-level EvAU examination (fase voluntaria) which can give them up to four extra marks.

Students with qualifications from an EU country, including the UK, can apply for exemption from the compulsory part of the EvAU (bloque obligatorio) and are awarded an average Spanish mark of up to 10 based on their UCAS points, but they will still need to sit the “fase voluntaria” if they want admission to one of the high demand courses. An excellent explanation of the process for A level students can be found here. The system of equivalence for international schools is under review and may be changed for 2018/2019.

International universities in Spain

Two US universities have permanent campuses in Spain and students can choose between doing a full degree in Spain or splitting their studies between the Spanish and US campuses. They are the Saint Louis University and Schiller University.

Students at the International College Spain

Students at the International College Spain

Overseas universities

The qualifications offered by the pupils of international schools in Spain (whether Abitur, Baccalauréat, Maturità, US High School Diplomas, A levels or the International Baccalaureate) are well understood and valued in the most popular university destinations outside of Spain, such as the US and Canada, Australia, Ireland, the UK and most other European countries, and schools are well versed in the application procedures for these countries.

UK universities

British schools in Spain with sixth-form students, and several other international schools, are already registered with UCAS. Students who have familiar qualifications, such as UK A levels or the International Baccalaureate, are credited with UCAS tariff points in exactly the same way as UK-based applicants. Passes in the Spanish Bachillerato are usually accepted as satisfying the general university entrance requirement, but universities take their own decisions on mark equivalence with regard to individual course entry requirements.

The potential impact of Brexit on international schools in Spain

Any concerns about Brexit mainly affect British schools. New legislation will be required to recognise UK qualifications outside the current EU-based regulations, schools will be looking for flexible work-permit arrangements to cover staff absences through illness or maternity leave, and there are doubts about the future fee status of UK university applicants from Spain.

Article published October 2017

Top image courtesy of The British School of Vila-real.

Other images courtesy of the following Winter's schools:

King's Infant School, Charmartin

Sotogrande International School

The British School of Navarra

King's College School, La Moraleja

The International College Spain

John Carrivick worked for the British Council in Madrid for 33 years until his recent retirement. His work included managing its relationship with the British schools in Spain, and liaising with Spanish national and regional authorities and the Department for Education on inspection, certification, equivalence of qualifications and child protection. John now works as a consultant on British education, and his continued work with schools includes serving as a member of the Advisory Council for the King’s College group of schools in Madrid.

Related schools

Similar Articles

Education in ITALY

International education

A new school for two months

International education

Further Reading

Sign Up for Winter's Updates