However, since those dark days, the education budget has increased considerably (although at 5.3 per cent of gross domestic product/GDP it’s still one of the lowest in the European Union/EU) and Spain’s educational system underwent profound (and long overdue) reforms in the ’80s and early ’90s, during which it was in a constant state of development. Most changes were necessary, although some have been controversial and haven’t met with universal support from parents and teaching staff.
The educational system is still in a state of flux and several new reforms are pending. The latest, known as the Ley Orgánica de Calidad ( LOE), intend to improve the quality of Spanish education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) education report released placed Spanish education in one of the worst positions and highlighted the fact that Spain has the highest percentage of unqualified school leavers in OECD countries. In the light of this report, the government promised a huge (and long overdue) injection of public funds into the education system. On the other hand, education in Spain is one of the most egalitarian and accessible in the world (the PISA report – see below – placed Spain eighth in terms of equal access to education, well ahead of the UK and the US).
Education is compulsory for all children aged between 6 and 16. The Spanish take education very seriously and have a deep respect and thirst for learning that isn’t found in many other countries. In the current highly competitive labour market, parents and students are acutely aware that academic qualifications and training are of vital importance to obtain a good job.
Public and private schools in Spain
Spain’s state-funded school system ( escuelas públicas) is supported by a comprehensive network of private schools ( escuelas privadas), including many foreign and international schools. Around one-third of Spain’s schoolchildren attend private schools, most of which are co-educational day schools. State education in Spain is almost exclusively co-educational and is entirely free, from nursery school through to university (and includes the children of foreign residents).
Spanish education levels
Over 90 per cent of children aged three to five attend nursery school and over 55 per cent of students remain in full-time education until they’re 18, around 25 per cent going on to vocational training and 30 per cent to university. Education standards at Spain’s finest universities are comparable with the best in Europe, although they’re generally overcrowded. Foreign parents who can afford it often send their children to foreign universities, particularly American and British universities, where courses are shorter and more flexible than in Spain.
Critics of the Spanish education system complain that its teaching methods are too traditional and unimaginative, with the emphasis on learning by rote. It has also been plagued by poor teacher training, badly motivated and poorly paid teachers, and a high student failure rate, although all have improved in the last decade. PISA assessed students in some 31 countries in three areas, language comprehension, mathematics and science, and Spanish students came 18th, 23rd and 19th respectively, far behind France, New Zealand and the UK, although ahead of Germany and Italy.
Generally, the younger a foreign child is when he enters the Spanish system, the easier he copes. Conversely the older he is, the more problems he has adjusting, particularly as the school curriculum is more demanding. Teenagers often have considerable problems learning Spanish and adjusting to Spanish school life. Many foreign parents prefer to educate younger children in Spanish nursery and primary schools, where they quickly learn Spanish, and to send children of secondary school age to a private school.
Despite the difficulties, however, for many children, the experience of schooling and living in a foreign country is a stimulating change and a challenge they relish, and it offers invaluable cultural and educational experiences. Children become ‘world’ citizens and are less likely to be prejudiced against foreigners and foreign ideas. This is particularly true when they attend an international school with pupils from different countries, although many state schools also have students from a number of countries and backgrounds, especially in Barcelona, Madrid and resort towns on the costas. Before making major decisions regarding your children’s future education, it’s important to consider their ability, character and individual needs.
Information about Spanish schools
Information about Spanish schools, state and private, can be obtained from Spanish embassies and consulates abroad, and from foreign embassies, educational organisations and government departments in Spain. Information about local schools can be obtained from town halls ( ayuntamientos). The Ministry of Education and Science (Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia) provides a general information service at its central office open Mondays to Fridays from 9am to 2.30pm (Servicio de Información, C/Alcalá, 36, 28071 Madrid, 902-218 500, http://www.mec.es). The autonomous regions also have their own education offices in regional capitals.
In addition to a detailed look at the Spanish state school system and private schools, this section also contains information about higher education and language schools in Spain. For up-to-date information about educating your children in Spain, visit our website devoted to expat kids, Expat-Kids.com.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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