Education in Spain: the options for relocating families

We explore the schooling options for families relocating to Spain, with tips and advice from experts on the ground.

Kings Group Spain

King's Group

Under Spanish law, education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 16. Responsibility for it is shared between the national government and the country’s 17 autonomous communities, or regions.There are three types of school: state schools, concertados and private schools (including international schools). State schools are free to attend. Concertados are privately owned and run, and may be secular or non-secular. Tuition is subsidised by the government but there are fees to be paid. At private and international schools, fees are payable.Established in 2001 by entrepreneur Beatriz Carro de Prada, BRS Relocation Services has offices in Barcelona and Madrid and provides relocation assistance to executives and families coming to Spain from all over the world. Among its clients, pharmaceuticals, software and IT, retail, and telecoms are the industry sectors seeing the greatest numbers of incoming assignees and relocatees.BRS offers the full range of help with education and schooling, including identifying appropriate state, private and international schools, researching the availability of places, arranging appointments, and assisting with application forms and registration.Parents’ choice of school, Ms Carro de Prada says, depends on their child’s previous educational experience and how long they plan to stay in Spain.“Families who move frequently from one country to another during the children’s school years tend to stick to an international school following a specific country’s curriculum,” she explains, “so that the children will have some degree of educational continuity regardless of location.”A school offering an internationally transferable programme of study like the International Baccalaureate (IB) may also be a good choice for families who move countries frequently.“If you plan to be in Spain for a number of years,” says Beatriz Carro de Prada, “you may want to enrol your child in a regular Spanish school. If you are thinking of returning to your home country after living in Spain for a short period, you may want to offer your children the experience of a year in a Spanish school, or you may prefer to continue with the kind of programme they were enrolled in back home.”

State schools

The primary (primaria) stage of school lasts for six years (ages six to 12). It is followed by four years of compulsory lower-secondary education, known as Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, or ESO, between the ages of 12 and 16. This prepares those students who wish to do so to progress to the non-compulsory upper-secondary stage (Formación Post-Obligatoria), where they study for the Bachillerato or undertake vocational training through the Formación Profesional programme, when they reach 16.Comparable to the UK’s A Level and the International Baccalaureate, the Bachillerato is a requirement for university entrance. It is studied over two years and consists of two parts, a core curriculum of compulsory subjects and a specialist curriculum with a choice of ‘branches’, including science and engineering, humanities, social sciences, and performing arts, music and dance.Entry to state schools is generally by catchment area, a point that parents planning this type of education for their children will need to consider when deciding where to live.

International schools

Unsurprisingly, the city with the largest number of international schools is the capital, Madrid, but there are a large number of international schools spread across the country. The majority offer either the national curriculum or the UK curriculum but 113 schools offer the IB programme.King’s Group has three schools in Madrid: Soto de Viñuelas, La Moraleja and Chamartín, with the first being established in 1969. It teaches the English national curriculum with students taking IGCSEs and A levels.Thanks to its popularity with international families, Barcelona has more than 30 international schools, both foreign schools (which follow their country’s curriculum) and foreign-language schools (which teach in a foreign language but follow the local curriculum).Although the latter are described as ‘international’, most of their students are Spanish, so foreign children will be exposed to Castilian (the official language across the whole of Spain) and Catalan (the co-official language of the region of Catalonia) through their classmates.The schools follow a variety of education systems and teach in a number of languages, including German, English, French, Hebrew, Italian and Japanese.Most of Barcelona’s international schools are in the districts of Sarrià Sant-Gervasi and Les Corts, but there are also schools in parts of the wider metropolitan area that have significant foreign communities, such as Sant Cugat, Sitges and La Garriga.Says Beatriz Carro de Prada, “Most of the families who move to Spain are sent by an employer. However, Barcelona is a very cosmopolitan city, and its location by the sea, the lifestyle and climate it offers, and the fact that it has an international airport mean that a lot of families want to move there independently.”      

Embracing the culture

Sotogrande International School (SIS) is located in the Cadiz region of southern Spain. This year it is celebrating 40 years of teaching the IB.Headteacher James Kearney believes that environment and climate are among its attractions for parents and students, as the Mediterranean climate of hot summers and mild winters allows for an active outdoor lifestyle all year round.Mr Kearney points out that international schools are a great way for parents and children to integrate into the community and learn the Spanish language.“The highest percentage of pupils at SIS are Spanish,” he says, “and, although our main language of tuition is English, the opportunity to practise Spanish and embrace the culture is present every day, through language lessons and making new friends to cultural events, trips and after-school activities. From a global citizen perspective, being able to speak Spanish and English opens up opportunities to work and study in many countries around the world.“A specific benefit to SIS is our proximity to Gibraltar, where many international companies are based, providing our students with fantastic links and opportunities to work and travel with them around the globe.”Sotogrande offers all three IB programmes. Explains James Kearney, “The focus of the IB on the wider world and internationalism is critical for us as an international school. We feel the IB framework allows our students to be prepared for life after school. Having a curriculum that spans the age range from three to 18 is powerful. For students, it aids consistency of language, concepts and skills.”

Advice for relocating families    

Beatriz Carro de Prada points out that high numbers of foreign residents have put exceptional pressure on international schools in Spain, where places have become scarce in recent years. To ensure places at the school of the relocating family’s choice, planning as far ahead as possible, together with assistance from relocation experts with local knowledge, is vital.“Timing can be a major challenge for parents,” Ms Carro de Prada says, “as schools in Spain have a very strict calendar of holidays in the summer and winter, dates during which it is very difficult to contact them. Finding a middle ground between school location, home location and work can also be a challenge, as multinational companies don’t always base themselves in the same areas as the international schools.”Relocating parents, Beatriz Carro de Prada believes, should look for a school that provides ‘welcome’ sessions designed to help students and their families forge connections as early as possible.

Effects of Brexit

With the UK’s departure from the EU looming, which cities are likely to attract companies opening new offices as a result of Brexit, and why?“Barcelona is the most attractive city for companies who want to open new offices,” says Beatriz Carro de Prada. “It has a wide international community, a location by the sea, an international airport, and competitive costs for office space, labour and services.” 
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