If your child is starting school in Madrid for the first time, then it is definitely appropriate to learn about some of the subtle differences between Spanish schools compared to schools in other countries. If you are looking for a lengthier and more in-depth guide to the school system, the Madrid Education Guide sets out all you need to know about schools in Madrid and how to navigate the different schools applications process (including late applications) plus an explanation about the bilingual programme offered at each school (state, semi-private and private).
1. Holidays and school terms
Spanish kids enjoy some of the lengthiest school holidays compared to other European kids!
- First term usually begins around the second week of September and will run up until Dec 20th (aprox). As Spanish families celebrate los Reyes Magos who come bearing gifts on eve of Jan 5th, schools never reopen until Jan 8th.
- Second term runs from Jan until Easter (Mar/Apr) and Easter holidays usually last around 10 days.
- Third and final term runs from Easter up until the 2nd/3rd week in June when schools officially close for Summer. It is important to note that most Spanish schools do not have half terms but some might have a few days off in Feb (semana en blanca).
2. School lunches
Forget the idea of a little sandwich, most school lunches are a three-course affair accompanied with bread. Of course, it is an additional cost but most families do sign up as it’s convenient and makes dinner a little easier to manage. Whilst allergies are generally catered for, vegetarians/vegans might have a harder time. Lunches are usually prepared on school premises but some schools do use external catering so it’s always a good idea to check with the school. At most schools lunch monitors are in charge, while the classroom teachers have a well-deserved break. Most children are on first-name basis with the monitors as they are often with them during after school activities too.
School days are longer compared to our neighbours with a typical school day beginning at 9 and finishing at about 16/17h. There are two main types of time tables:
- Jornada partida with classes in the morning and the afternoon and a 2h break for lunch in between.
- Some state schools (numbers increasing all of the time) have what is known as jornada continua and classes run from 9-14h with a short break in between. Families can either pick their children up at 14h or a lot of children will have lunch at school and will be picked up at about 16/17h.
Whilst these days may seem quite long to families new to Madrid, it does help somewhat with the schedule of working parents.
4. Student-Teacher Relationship
In Spanish schools children will usually call their teacher by their first name. This might be a little jarring for families from other countries where teachers are usually addressed as Mr. Jones or Ms. Galvin but I think that it really does help to make the student-teacher relationship a lot closer. Another thing that stands out is that the kids are very hands on! (bar Covid times of course). Children will usually throw themselves at teachers and want to be hugged and embraced, something that is often frowned upon in other countries or considered inappropriate. Students usually spend the first three years of infantil (3-6 years) with the same teacher who becomes like a second Mum (or Dad but honestly male teachers at this educational stage are few and far between). In primaria (6-12 years), most students will have the same teacher for two years in a row which again does give way to a good relationship between teacher and student.
5. Parental Involvement
Depending on the school parental involvement is more or less encouraged. Sate and semi-private (concertado) schools usually have very active AMPA (Parents Association) whereas most private schools do not. AMPAs are a great way to get involved in the school and to get to know other parents.
Most parents will organize ‘cumpleaños trimestrales’ a few times per year (one per term) for the children in their class group. These can take place at a soft play area or local playground near the school. It is the parents of the birthday boys/girls who will bring a token present for their child and will bring a merienda (afternoon snack) for all of the children at the party. It really is a fantastic way of doing class birthdays, not only helping to free up calendars from weekly birthday parties but also succeeds in avoiding conflicts when some children aren’t invited. Another nice touch is that usually on the day of their birthday, the birthday boy/girl will give a small token to each of their classmates, something small and inexpensive.
6. Concertado schools
These are semi-private schools that are partly subsidized by the state. If you are unfamiliar with he concept, take a look at this article. They are similar to charter schools in the US or grammar schools in the UK. Families can expect to pay a monthly contribution which varies depending on on the school. Officially these fees are voluntary but in reality, families are expected to pay. About 30% of all students in Madrid attend these seme-private schools, with about 50% attending a state school and the remaining 20% attend a private school. Concertado schools are be either bilingual (Spanish/English) or non-bilingual and follow Spanish curriculum (Spanish baccalaureate). About 98% of all concertado schools in Madrid capital are Catholic schools.
7. School age and year groups
Education in Spain is compulsory from age 6 to 16 but most children will start school at the age of three (segundo ciclo infantil). Year groups are based on year of birth meaning all children born in same year (eg. 2014, Jan-Dec) will be in same year group. This is quite different to other countries where the age range for each year level is based on a August cut off and can often be frustrating for international families whose children might have to move up a year grade depending on when their birthday falls. Anybody who knows me is tired of hearing me go on about this as my three children were born in November / December (not well planned at all – gentle eyeroll). Most Spanish schools are quite strict about implementing this rule as stipulated by Spanish law but surely other factors such as level of maturity, physical size etc. should also be considered. International schools are more flexible regarding this particular rue and consider each student on an individual basis.
Something that often stands out is that teachers usually don’t follow a strict dress code. Casual dressing is more the norm although in many private schools formal dressing is a must.
All teachers must be qualified to teach in any of the schools but teachers at a state school must sit an additional exam known as ‘la Oposición’ (civil servant exam). These are incredibly difficult exams and not only depend on your results but also on the results of other candidates and total number of vacancies in the region. If you want a job for life as a teacher, you must sit an opisición.
9. International schools
International schools in Spain are independent and will usually follow a curriculum of another country, fees are usually higher than other Private schools. There are approximately 50 international schools in Madrid and include; IB, British, American, French, German, Scandinavian, Swiss to name but a few. These schools are also very popular with Spanish families and most of these schools will have mainly Spanish student body (70-80%) meaning that whilst the language in the classroom matches the curriculum, Spanish is usually the language spoken in the playground.
Bilingual is THE buzzword and is offered at almost all stages of education. About 50% of all public and concertado schools in Madrid are bilingual. To learn about the bilingual educational programme offered by La Comunidad de Madrid, take a look at this recent post. To quickly summarize, a bilingual state/semi-private primary school must have at least 30% of teaching hours must be in English. In secondary school (bilingual section), English along with other subjects taught in English will account for at least one third of the weekly school hour. Most bilingual private schools will split school day 50/50 between English and Spanish.
These are just some of the subtle differences that are particular to schools in Madrid. Families can and will adapt to all types of schooling but as always it is best to be prepared. Each child is different and thus will suit one particular type of school more than another. With my expertise and local know how, families can find schools in Madrid that fit perfectly with their children’s academic, social, and emotional needs. A happy child is a happy parent, which is the central ethos of Steps into Spain – and one less challenge.
If you have any more questions about schools in Madrid, get in contact – I’d love to chat.
Sinéad Galvin is an educational consultant and founded Steps into Spain (a boutique educational and relocation consultancy located in Madrid) to help families find the right school for their child in Madrid. She uses her professional and personal experience of Spanish schools, the Spanish education system and the Spanish way of life to ensure that parents are knowledgeable and informed about what to expect and can secure the best school for their child.
Steps into Spain will take stock of your children’s educational needs and overall family requirements (housing, paperwork and general settling in). Our trusted and expert service is provided to families who are moving to Madrid from abroad. And also, to families that already live here and need some extra guidance and support.