The Spanish Education system has been subject to a number of reforms in recent years. Changes in Infant and primary education have been somewhat more successful to date than those in the secondary system. In most parts of Spain schooling is now available to children from the age of three, although the obligatory age for starting school is five years old. Children are admitted once a year (in September), strictly according to the calendar year of their birth. This means that children born in January are the oldest in their class, and children born between October and December actually start school before their third birthday. The normal registration period for all ages is in May for the following September, and may be done via the local town hall, or by applying directly to a school.
Infant Education (Educación Infantil)
Educación Infantil (EI) lasts for three years and teaches children about social, personal and environmental values, as well as developing their physical and mental skills. They are gradually introduced to reading and writing from 4 years old and will have covered their alphabet by the end of EI, although fluent reading ability is not expected. EI is one of the newest areas of Spanish education and is generally well-taught by dedicated specialist teachers.
Primary Education (Educación básica)
At six (or nearly six), children progress to Educación Primaria (EP). This lasts for six years and is divided into three cycles (ciclos). The objectives of primary education are planned over each two-year period, at the end of which any child who is considered not to have achieved these objectives may be required to repeat the second year of the cycle. Students study the following subjects throughout Primary education: Spanish language (lengua), Maths (mates), Conocimiento del Medio, also known as Cono (a general knowledge subject which includes biology, history, geography, general and local knowledge and social awareness, Physical Education (Educación Física or EP); Arts and Crafts (plástica), and a second language, usually English (inglés). English will be taught by a specialist, but there is no obligation for the class teacher to speak English. Classes are always mixed ability in Spain; the concept of “streaming” is unknown. In addition many students will study Religion (religión) which mainly consists of teaching Catholic doctrine.
The state system provides support teams of psychologist, sociologist and speech therapist which are shared by several schools. Children normally have the same class teacher for each two-year cycle. Teachers make themselves available one hour a week to speak to parents about their children’s progress (tutoría). There are also parents’ meetings every term to discuss class work and special projects and trips.
From about year 3 children are introduced to termly exams, but there is no equivalent to national testing in the Spanish system (at this age). Although state education is free, parents will have to buy all textbooks and materials. Uniforms are generally worn by students in religious private schools and grant-assisted schools.
From age 12 (or nearly 12) children move on to Secondary school (el Instituto). Until about ten years ago, secondary school started at 14 and in some areas the first two years of secondary are still accommodated in the Primary building if the local Instituto is not physically big enough to hold them. The new secondary system is modelled loosely on the British comprehensive system, moving away from a two-level system (similar to Grammar and Secondary Modern) to complete mixed ability schooling. The first four years are called la ESO (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria). Children can leave school at the end of this period or at the age of 16 if they reach this sooner. ESO is divided into two cycles with the same system of repeated years at the end of each cycle as occurs in primary education.
A wide range of secondary subjects are taught, including a language choice between French and English. Until recent years secondary education in Spain was very conventional with a lot of rote learning and constant tests and examinations. There have been marked improvements with the introduction of project work, continuous assessment and more up-to-date and relevant syllabuses. However, much still depends on the approach of individual teachers, and there has been a general lack of investment in retraining and resources to make a total success of the scheme.
One of the main criticisms of the new secondary system centres on the discipline problems which result when teenage children who are repeating courses are placed in the same classes as younger and more academically-inclined children. There is still much debate about the success of reforms in secondary education, and more improvements are being introduced.
At the end of the four years of ESO, students may leave school, go on to the two-year Bachillerato academic course, or enroll on practical training courses called modulos.
There are four types of Bachillerato – Arts, Humanities, Natural and Health Sciences and Technology. Modulos include office and administrative skills, mechanics, catering, and hairdressing.
After two years in Bachillerato, students have intensive examinations during the month of May and their final mark is based on a combination of examination results and continuous assessment. A month later, in June, students who wish to go to University take a general university entrance examination (Selectividad) and the university course they are able to follow depends on the result of this examination along with their Bachillerato results.
A far higher percentage of students attend university in Spain than in Britain or Ireland. There are few university grants in Spain so sending a child to university is a major investment. Students may take as long as necessary to complete a university course, repeating courses and spreading out examinations over years. There is a general tendency to attend the university nearest to your home, and many students stay at home or live with relatives in the city to save money.
School Calendar and Timetable
The Spanish school year starts in mid-September and ends in the third week of June. There is usually a break of two weeks or so at Christmas and about a week at Easter. There are no half-term holidays as such, but there are short breaks throughout the year which are organised around national, regional and local saints’ days and festivals. There are two kinds of timetables, a divided day which allows at least two hours for lunch, or the innovation of the jornada continua, a blocked day which finishes in the early afternoon. Many public secondary schools have now adopted this blocked-day timetable, and teenagers are free from about 3 p.m. every day. Grant-assisted and private schools, however, have classes until the early evening several days a week.
In primary school, homework is at the discretion of individual class teachers, but may be given from the first year of primary school onward. It is usually assumed that parents will be involved in helping children with their homework, and parents who are unable to do this for any reason sometimes pay for tutors to help their children for an hour or so every evening.
At secondary school there is usually a fairly heavy load of homework and exam studying which require considerable sacrifice and self-discipline on the part of students who wish to do well at school.