If your child is starting school in Madrid for the first time, then it is definitely a good time 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 Spanish education system, take a look at this guide which we prepared previously.
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 public schools 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 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 as inappropriate. Students usually spend the first three years of infantil (3-6 years) with the same teacher who becomes like a second Mum to them. Following that most students will have the same teacher for two years in a row which really does their relationship time to develop.
5. Parental Involvement
Depending on the school parental involvement is more encouraged or less. Public and 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 for the children in the class group. They 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.
6. Concertado schools
These are semi-private schools and are partly subsidized by the state. They can be compared 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 there fees are voluntary but in reality, families are expected to pay. About 30% of all students in Madrid attend a Concertado school, with about 50% attending a public (state) school and the remaining 20% attend a private school. Concertado schools are be either bilingual or Spanish and all will follow Spanish curriculum. 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 kids in a specific year group will have share same year of birth, Jan – Dec. This is quite different to other countries where the age range for each year level is from September to September. Anybody that 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 children being in the corresponding year group and will not make exceptions without a valid reason.
Something that often stands out is that teachers usually don’t follow a strict dress code. Casual dressing is more the norm although in some Private schools this is not the case at all.
All teachers must be qualified to teach in any of the schools but teachers at a Public 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 of vacancies in the region. If you want a job for life as a teacher, you must do 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%). This then means that whilst the language in the classroom matches the curriculum, Spanish is usually the language spoken in the playground.
10 – Bilingualism
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 Public/Concertado 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.
Sinéad Galvin is an educatonal 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.