A group of school kids and a teacher in education in Spain

Moving to a new country can be a daunting experience, especially if you have children. Understanding the educational system is crucial to ensuring your life in Spain is a positive experience for all your family. Choosing the right type of education and school is arguably the most important decision you’ll make when moving to Spain.

This guide provides a clear and simple overview of the Spanish education system and the options available to you as a non-Spanish resident. It is part of our series on Education in Spain. It lets you see the lie of the land from which you can dive into more detail in the other articles. And if you wish to enlist professional help, please head over to our School Search Service for details.

Understanding Spain’s Education System

Spain’s education system is comprehensive and efficient, providing free and fee-based schooling of generally high-quality education. School attendance is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 16, with a focus on equity, inclusiveness, and individual attention for educational achievement. The system is decentralized, with the 17 autonomous communities (Comunidades Autónomas) managing and delivering education alongside national education policy.

Frustratingly, the quality of education throughout Spain does vary, with some achievement standards below OECD averages. The good news, however, is that there are outstanding schools and colleges in both the public and private sectors. We’re here to help you find the right school for your child.

Administration of Education in Spain

The Ministry of Education and Vocational Training (Ministerio de Educación y Formación Profesional) oversees national education policy. On the ground, the 17 autonomous communities manage and deliver education, catering to regional cultural and co-language needs. This does mean, for example, that a public school in Cataluña may have very different educational goals and philosophy from a public school in Madrid.


The public (or state) schools primarily teach in Spanish, with exceptions in regions with co-official languages. For example, my local primary school teaches in Spanish and Valencian. As a result, my Dutch neighbors’ children can speak four languages—Dutch, English, Spanish, and Valencian—before reaching ten years old. This can be a particular joy for non-Spanish residents educating their children in Spain.

Education in Spain Standards and Pupil Achievements

Spain spends around 5% of its GDP on education, which is close to the OECD average and slightly more than the UK’s 4.2%. While the country scores above the OECD average in reading literacy, mathematics, and sciences, there are challenges in reducing early school dropout rates and improving vocational training enrolment and qualification rates. Teachers need at least a bachelor’s degree for pre-primary and primary levels and a master’s degree for secondary education.

The Academic Calendar and the Spanish School Day

The school year in Spain runs from September to June. There is normally a week off over Easter and two weeks at Christmas. The rest of the vacations are a (seemingly endless!) summer holiday that can be over two months.

School hours vary, and the siesta does come into play. For Primary and Secondary schools, the day typically starts between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and ends between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Some schools have a split schedule, with classes in the morning and early evening. Lessons last 45-60 minutes.

Many schools offer a mid-morning snack and a lunch break. Some students go home for lunch, while others stay at school for a school-provided meal.

Other Aspects of Education in Spain

In line with Spain’s advanced progress along the digital transformation journey, Spanish schools increasingly use digital tools to enhance learning and digital literacy. School uniforms are more common in private schools, while public schools focus on inclusion. These are complemented by special programs for diverse student needs, such as gifted education, special education, and vocational training. Parents are encouraged to participate through associations and councils.

Structure of the Spanish Education System

This can be considered across two main dimensions: Educational stages and types of schools. The table summarizes the structure:

Educational StageAge RangePublic (free)Private (fees)International (fees)Concertados (reduced fees)University
& Colleges
(not compulsory)
0-3(1st Cycle) Nursery (Guardería) Fee-paying
(2nd Cycle)
Primaria (compulsory)6-12
Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO)(compulsory)12-16
Bachillerato &
Higher Education 18+
Education in Spain

Early Childhood Education (Educación Infantil)

This stage is divided into two age-specific parts:

First cycle (0-3 years)

This stage is optional and not free. It is often provided by nursery schools (guarderías) which can be public or private — usually the latter. Fees vary depending on the type of school and the family’s income.

Second cycle (3-6 years)

This stage is free. Children attend preschool (escuela infantíl) for three years before starting primary education. Attendance in this cycle is not compulsory, but it is highly popular and widely attended.

Primary Education (Educación Primaria)

Primary education in Spain lasts for six years, from ages 6 to 12. It is compulsory and free at public schools for all children, including non-Spanish residents. The curriculum includes subjects such as Spanish language, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, and foreign languages (usually English).

Secondary Education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO))

ESO covers four years of education for students aged 12 to 16. Like Primary Education, it is compulsory and free at public schools, including for non-Spanish residents. The curriculum is broad, covering subjects such as Spanish language and literature, mathematics, science, history, geography, and physical education. Successful completion of ESO is necessary to proceed to either Bachillerato or vocational training.

Post-Compulsory Secondary Education

After completing ESO, students have two options:

Bachillerato is a two-year program for students aged 16 to 18, preparing them for university education or advanced vocational training. Students can choose from streams such as sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. After the final exams, successful students receive the Bachillerato certificate, which is essential for university entrance.

Vocational Training (Formación Profesional (FP))
Vocational training is an alternative to Bachillerato, offering practical and career-oriented education. It is divided into:

  • Basic Vocational Training
    For students who have completed ESO but do not wish to continue to Bachillerato.
  • Intermediate Vocational Training
    Requires completion of ESO.
  • Advanced Vocational Training
    Requires completion of Bachillerato or Intermediate Vocational Training.

FP courses cover various fields such as healthcare, engineering, hospitality, and administration, providing students with skills directly applicable to the job market.

Higher Education (Educación Superior)

Higher education in Spain includes universities and vocational training schools. Non-Spanish residents are welcome to apply but may need to meet specific requirements, such as language proficiency and academic qualifications. Spain has a wide range of public and private universities offering undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Some popular options for international students include the University of Barcelona, Complutense University of Madrid, and Pompeu Fabra University.

Advanced vocational training programs are also available at higher education institutions. These programs offer specialized training in various fields, such as business, technology, and healthcare.

Educational Considerations for Expat Families

Apart from the usual things to consider regarding your children’s education, there are specific features of the Spanish education system to take into account. The extent to which these affect your final decision can be driven by your lifestyle/work choices, finances, and where you live.

In my experience, the key factors in choosing the right educational path for your children are language proficiency, academic goals, and budget.

With this in mind, let’s examine the main features nearly all expat families face and provide some guidance to help you decide.

1. Public v Private Education

You have the choice of public (state schools in the UK), private (fee-paying), and semi-private (concertados) schools.

Public Schools (Colegios Públicos)

Public schools in Spain offer free education and are a great option for expat families looking to integrate into the local community. They are funded and administered by the autonomous community government. Classes are conducted in Spanish (and in regional languages like Catalan, Galician, or Basque, depending on the region). Enrolling children in public schools can help them quickly learn the language and adapt to Spanish culture. Language is a potential barrier, along with variations in education quality across different areas. You will usually be allocated the closest available school.

A note on language: The age of your children is important here. The younger they are, the more able they should be to pick up Spanish (and the local language, if applicable). In this case, it is very common for your child to progress more slowly in your native language and Spanish over a couple of years. But they quickly catch up and become bilingual, seemingly overnight!

Private Schools (Colegios Privados)
Private schools are independent, charge tuition fees, and often provide bilingual or international education. They have smaller class sizes and more resources. Some offer the Spanish curriculum, others international curricula (such as the International Baccalaureate, British, or American systems). These schools are ideal if you are looking for an educational environment or a curriculum aligned with your own country’s system. Private schools have significant control over their curriculum and educational approach.

There are two main types of private schools in Spain:

Spanish Private Schools
These institutions are fully privately funded and receive no financial support from the government. They offer the national Spanish curriculum but may also incorporate specific educational philosophies or additional programs not mandatory in public schools.

International Private Schools
These schools cater to both Spanish and expat families and offer international curricula, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), British GCSE and A-Levels, and the American high school diploma.

They typically teach in English or other major languages such as French, German, and more. By definition, the school environment can be quite multicultural, which can provide an invaluable platform for students looking at global careers.

Many expats choose to send their children to international schools. However, international school fees can be expensive, and availability can be limited for the more popular ones.

Private and International school fees range from €500 to €1,300 a month at the top end. In addition, you may have extra costs covering a one-off enrolment fee, uniform, school meals, and bus service.

Semi-Private Schools (Colegios Concertados)

As the name suggests, these are privately owned schools that receive government subsidies, resulting in lower tuition fees. Any Spanish resident can attend. Fees can range from €400 -500 a month, depending on the school and the level of government support. They are similar to academies or charter schools in the UK and US.

A particular aspect that sets concertados apart from their public and private counterparts is religious affiliation. This can influence the school culture and curriculum, differentiating them from public non-religious education and secular private schools.

2. Regional Differences in Education Across Spain

Spain’s education system performs relatively well in terms of equity and has made significant progress in reducing educational disparities, ensuring students from different backgrounds have relatively equal opportunities and outcomes. However, there are significant disparities in student performance across Spain’s regions. For example, it is estimated that the difference between the top-performing region, Castilla y León, and the lowest-performing region, the Canary Islands, is equivalent to almost three years of schooling.

Of the 17 regions, 11 perform above the OECD average in science, while six are below. The proportion of low-performing students in the regions varies from 10% to 30%. For top performers, the range is 3% to 9%. Regions like Galicia and Castilla y León have higher levels of educational equity with more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Funding differences are not the primary cause of these variations, as regions with similar funding show different results. The decentralized nature of the system, lack of common national standards, and regional approaches to evaluations contribute to these disparities.

The variation in performance runs across public, private, and concertado schools. While private schools tend to have higher average scores, this is largely explained by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds.

Addressing regional inequities remains a key challenge for Spain’s decentralized education system.

Educational Spotlight on Major Cities

The Spanish cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia exhibit distinct educational profiles which are a reflection of their particular unique socioeconomic and cultural makeup.


The capital stands out for its high-performing education system, attributed to a strong economic and educational infrastructure. The city’s educational institutions are known for their world-class facilities and highly qualified teachers. Madrid’s schools have implemented initiatives to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring equal access to quality education.


By contrast, Cataluña’s capital faces significant challenges in terms of educational equity and outcomes. The region’s historical and cultural factors, such as student diversity, can present unique challenges for schools and impact educational performance.


Up and coming, Valencia has a stable educational system, with performance levels close to the national average and improving over time. The city’s education system is characterized by a strong focus on vocational training and a relatively low dropout rate. Valencia’s schools have also shown a strong commitment to internationalization, offering programs and courses in English and other languages.

3. Choosing the Right School

Bringing everything together, you are now in a position to home in on the type of — maybe the actual — school for your children. Our Schools in Spain >> How to choose the best education for your child article provides more detail. It also includes further links to international schools in Spain including those in Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.

The main considerations in choosing a school are:

  • School Stages
    Ensure the school offers the right stage for your child.
  • Curriculum
    Spanish/Regional Spanish, International Baccalaureate (IB), British GCSE and A Levels, American High School Diploma, etc.
  • School Facilities
    Classrooms, science labs, sports facilities, communal areas 
  • Location
    Accessibility, safe environment.
  • Fees
    Tuition fees and additional costs, such as enrollment fees.
  • Enrollment Process
    Any specific requirements, such as language proficiency or academic records.
  • After-School Activities
    What is available, extra costs.
  • Parental Involvement
    Level of parental involvement and communication with the school.
  • Visit Schools
    Visit the schools you are considering to see for yourself.

4. Enrollment Processes for Expat Families

Naturally, there are differences in enrolling your child in a Spanish school compared to your native country.

Public Schools

Public schools may have limited English language support and not cater specifically to expat students. To enroll your child, you will typically need to provide proof of residence in the area (El Padrón), a birth certificate, and a copy of your child’s previous academic records. Some public schools may offer English language support, but it is not guaranteed. You may need to provide additional documentation or support for your child.

Private Schools

For enrolment, you usually need proof of payment for tuition fees, a birth certificate, and a copy of your child’s previous academic records.

International Schools

You will need proof of your child’s academic records, a birth certificate, and sometimes additional documentation such as language proficiency tests.


As with so many things when considering your life in Spain, the decision you make is guided by your preferences and personal circumstances. Understanding the options is crucial for making an informed decision that best suits your children’s educational needs. Despite some shortcomings, Spain does offer a diverse and structured education system catering to all age groups and needs. And with careful planning, you can ensure benefits not necessarily available in your native country from an education in Spain.

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