Inside Spanish Schools: What Every Expat Parent Should Expect

*Bilingual school Madrid - Colegio Agustiniano - Steps into Spain

Written bystepsint


Expat parents enrolling in schools in Spain for the very first time are often surprised with how different things are compared to back home. The culture shock is real both for parents and their child in schools in Spain. And that is exactly what I would like to write about today. Being prepared is half of the battle so let’s get to it.

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).

Cutoff age in admissions

Unlike many other countries. Spanish schools admissions policy is based on year of birth. This means that all children born in the same year will all be placed in the same year group (Jan – Dec), great for babies born early in the year and not so great for kids born towards end of the year (my three babies…).

Depending on which country you are coming from, it can cause a lot of problems for children born Sep-Dec. Most Spanish schools are quite strict about this and insist on following this rule which sometimes means that international students who might have a very basic level of Spanish are made to move up a grade to comply with Spanish rules. Once (!), a Spanish public school did offer one of my clients the option of moving down a grade as he did not speak much Spanish but this particular family rejected this option as it would complicate things for their son upon their return to US. A school does offer to review the situation once the school year has started but it might take a month or two and by then, your child might have made some friends and the thought of beginning again in a younger year group really is not very attractive.

What is most annoying about this rule is that surely other factors should also be considered, not just year of birth. How about level of Spanish, maturity, physical size etc. I think that I could write a book about this.

International schools have more flexibility and tend to consider each student on an individual basis.

Shorter days for younger kids

This does not tend to exist. Timetables in schools in Spain do vary by school but students will usually be at school from 9-16/17h, concertado schools tend to have longest timeable. If you prefer that your child has a shorter day, you should search for a public school that offers ‘jornada continua’, 9-14h.

Handwriting for primary age school children

Unlike other countries, schools in Spain favour cursive writing when children are younger. I always recommend that my clients with primary age children get some practice with cursive before beginning school. Once kids get to 4th / 5th grade, they switch to print handwriting.

Packed lunches

Packed lunched are not a thing in schools in Spain. Almost never, regardless of the school. Lunch is a big deal and the same goes for schools in Spain. Lunch is a three course affair and consists of a starter, main course dessert (usually fruit although can be sweet if it’s last day before holidays) accompanied by bread. Parents pay extra for lunch and prices vary a lot between public and private. Most schools do not allow students to bring in their own lunch due to allergies (or losing a nice money earner..shhh). Some students do go home for lunch but the majority remain at school. Once lunch is over students head out to the playground to play with classmates or to participate in an extracurricular activity (additional cost).

School uniforms

In most public schools in Spain, students do not wear uniforms. Some public schools do have a uniform but it is not compulsory. Concertado schools almost always have one and they can usually be bought either at the school or in one particular store. In private schools, it really does depend on the school. And in international schools such as British schools in Madrid, all students wear uniforms.

SEN support in schools in Spain

It does exist but should be an a whole lot better. In public and concertado schools, there are ‘centro preferentes’ which provide additional support to students with hearing difficulties, motor difficulties, PDD  (autism, aspergers ) etc. Unfortunately for parents, places in these centres are usually high in demand and cannot accommodate every child with SEN.

Private schools are another option if you can afford it, international schools belong in this category. However, I know from past experience with my clients in Madrid, most international schools are very slow to accept children with SEN which causes a massive headache for expat parents of children with SEN who do not speak Spanish.


Unfortunately, most Spanish schools like to give out a lot of homework, especially from about 3rd grade upwards. It seems a bit unfair when one considers how long the school day already is but that is how it is. Children (everybody really) tend to go to bed later compared to other countries, otherwise it would be tricky to fit everything in with school, homework and afterschool activities.

Best way to address your child’s teacher

Schools all over the world vary widely when it comes to what they teach and how they do it, but there’s one thing every student will learn on the first day, how to address a teacher. In Spanish schools, the majority of children address teachers by their first name. This laidback approach is believed to encourage equality.

Forget Mr./Mrs./Ms although these terms continue to be used in British schools.

Additional Spanish language support at school

This very much depends on the school. There are public and concertado schools in Madrid which are more supportive than others with kids who speak little or no Spanish. However, one must be realistic and consider that in a class of 25, a teacher is limited in how much personalized attention they can really offer. These students are usually taken out of class alongside other students who might have learning difficulties and work in smaller groups with a teacher.

Children coming to Spain who do not speak Spanish and are in 3rd grade or above, can try to enrol in a school with aula de enlace’. Be warned, places are limited and demand is high.

Many private schools offer an EAL (English as Additional Language) programme which incur additional fees.

Spanish immersion in bilingual public / concertado school

It is a fact that most schools in Spain oversell its level and hours of English, regardless of the type of school (public, concertado, private). The bilingual programe is identical in both public & concetado schools and at most, 30% of the time table is taught in English. Some teachers do speak English but there is no guarantee that your child’s class teacher (tutora) will be their class teacher.

In a private bilingual school, the split Is 50/50 and one would expect that all teachers speak English. Another important point is that English teachers in a public / concertado bilingual school are not usually native English speakers, instead they are Spanish with a C1 level in English.

Third and fourth languages

A common question for expat parents moving to Spain and hoping to learn Spanish is, can they skip learning a third language? Nope, this is not usually an option. Students in schools in Spain usually begin to learn a third language in 7th grade (1º ESO) and all students must study that language.

School age in Spain

Education in Spain is compulsory from age 6 to 16 but most children will start school at the age of three. Nursery and preschool education in Spain are completely optional. Both private and public nurseries exist, although public nurseries are quite difficult to get into.

Primary education (primaria) is for children aged 6-12 years. And secondary is for students aged 12-16. The final two years (Bachillerato) are not compulsory and students tend to choose between a two year Bachiller (el Bachillerato) or Vocational Training (Formación Profesional).


Y colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado! This saying is used all of the time in schools and really means that this story is now over, all school age children in Spain will be familiar with it. I have highlighted  some of the biggest surprises for families relocating to Spain and enrolling in schools in Spain for first time as experienced by my clients (families from all over the world). If you would like to share other surprises, do get in touch and I will happily include. The more prepared families are for schools in Spain, the easier the adaptation process will be for all of the family.

Sinéad Galvin’s extensive experience as an education consultant fuels her commitment to helping families successfully navigate the Spanish education system and discover the Best school for your child. Sinéad founded Steps into Spain, a boutique education consultancy situated in Madrid and offers a variety of school search servicesTake a look to learn more about the services and what is included in each one. If you’re ready to begin or want more information, feel free to reach out to Sinéad.

Come join our Facebook group, Madrid Education. We have over 2,500 parents of school age children in the group.

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