An Introduction to the Spanish School System

Dear Andrea,

I know you probably thought that the school system all over the world was the same, but it most definitely is not! In comparison to the U.S., the school system in Spain (and they way they teach, etc.) is very different. Here’s the basic structure:


Infantile Education (Educación Infantil):

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While they have something called daycare (guardaría), parents also have the option to put their kids in school starting basically from when they are born. From 0 - 3 kids participate in what is called the first cycle of infantil education and from 3 - 6 they participate in the second cycle. The purpose of this education is physical, affective, social, and intellectual development in the kids.


Basic Education (Educación Básica):

Free, obligatory education for kids starts at age 6 (although infantil education is very common) and is divided into two parts:

Primary Education (Educación Primaria): Which is in turn divided into 6 academic courses (traditionally from age 6 to age 12) when students learn a base for their future education. During these 6 years, kids should learn oral expression, reading, writing, arithmetic, basic cultural elements, and about how to develop in society. Classes include: social sciences, art, PE, Spanish, foreign languages, maths, and natural sciences.

Secondary Education (Educación Secundaria): Also known as the E.S.O (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria or Obligatory Secondary Education), this phase is divided into 4 years and students usually complete it from ages 12 to 16. Although this is obligatory education, students do not have to finish it in the prescribed 4 years and if they don’t manage to finish it at all, they can ‘supplement’ this diploma (see vocational education below). The classes and methodology in these four years are similar to the previous six.

Once a student has finished his or her 4th year of school (cuarto de la E.S.O), they have various options that are not obligatory.


Bachillerato (or bachiller):

Consists of two years of schooling that basically prepare you for the university entrance exam (Selectividad*). The first year is sort-of a prep for the prep-year, but the second year of this schooling is exam after exam to make sure you are ready. A big difference for many of us is the idea that at 16 you decide if you want to continue studying, and what kind of studies you will take on. Bachillerato is a path normally taken by those students who want to go to university, and has various options:

Art (Artes): The study of all things artistic such as drawing and design, painting, music, and dance.

Science and Technology (Ciencias y Technología): Is what you study if math or physics or technology is your thing.

Humanities (Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales): Which is sort of an in-between point of the previous two options consisting of social sciences, literature, etc.

One interesting thing to note is that when students choose a type of bachillerato, most times they are choosing a life-path. This is not because it is impossible to switch subjects later on, but that what you learn in certain groups of classes is totally different that what you learn in other specialties. This makes it difficult to study social sciences in bachillerato and switch to natural sciences later on.


Vocational Education (Formación Profesional or FP):

Another option for students, either when they complete 4º E.S.O or after bachillerato, is to do vocational training. This type of education is directed towards a more practical insertion into the labor system (as opposed to university which can be much more round-about). In Spain, this training is divided into different ‘families’ or types of courses. These courses usually take two years (2000) hours and are divided into different levels.

Basic (Básica): Students can participate in this type of FP starting at 15, providing that they have finished the second year of E.S.O. and it can act as a ‘replacement’ for a E.S.O. qualification within the Spanish system.

Middle (Grado Medio): This middle qualification of FP can be taken on by students who have either finished E.S.O. or the Basic FP. After taking a course in this category students have a ‘replacement’ qualification comparable to bachillerato within the FP system.

Higher (Grado Superior): This highest qualification can be completed by students who have finished bachillerato or those who have a grado medio that is in a similar subject to what they wish to study in the grado superior. Once finished with this type of studies students have the option to enter university without having to do the entrance exam and, in some cases, can count some of their FP credits towards university courses.


Higher Education (Educación Superior):

 A university situation. 

A university situation. 

It is common for students in Spain to continue studying once they finish previous education opportunities for various reason: unemployment is high, educational opportunities are relatively affordable, and there is a social expectation to continue studying.

University (Universidad): The university experience in Spain is aligned with the 2010 Bologna Plan, making it compatible with other European plans (just so you know, most students who lived this transition do not like this plan). This means that students complete a 4 year undergraduate program (Grado), one or two years of masters (Máster), and doctorate. I personally did my university experience in Spain, which you can read more about here and here.

Non-University: While FP Grado Superior is actually higher education (I just included it before to try and make things clearer), there are also other non-university options, mostly in the field of the arts. These courses are considered equal to a degree and are highly valued in many cities (for example, music and dance conservatories).


Apart from the official structural difference, there are two other things that are very interesting about the Spanish School System that I would like to briefly mention (although we can get into these ideas more on another day):

  1. Kids Fail: And it is totally acceptable to repeat classes and years. Something that is amazing to me here is the integration of educational failure into the school system—no one is going to pass you just because you shouldn’t fail here. Now, we can argue about whether this is good or bad, but it is most definitely a big cultural difference, so brush up on cultural competence before having the discussion.
  2. Class Methodology: Another thing that really surprised me here was the dependence on traditional teaching methods (lecturing and note-taking) from a very young age. This creates a system where students are very comfortable when given exactly what they have to study—to memorize it—and then forget it. It also means that students are not usually as comfortable doing projects, writing essays, or citing authors.

Have you studied in Spain? What was your experience?


*I don’t want to go into Selectividad now, but I will in another post because this is another difference in comparison to the U.S. system.