João Marôco
IAVE – Instituto de Avaliação Educativa, I. P.

Overview of Education System

The Portuguese education system is composed of three major education levels: preschool, compulsory education, and higher education. The Ministry of Education and Sciencea,1 defines the national centralized educational policy. It is responsible for the enforcement of the core curricula and universal access to education for preschool and compulsory education. It also enforces compulsory education as a constitutional right, free of any philosophical, aesthetic, political, and/or religious principles. For higher education, courses are periodically audited and approved by a regulatory agency from the Ministry of Education and Science. The Portuguese education network is composed of state funded as well as private for-profit and nonprofit schools, institutes, and universities.

Preschool education (UNESCO’s ISCED Level 0) is optional for children from age 3 up to their entry into compulsory schooling. The main objectives of preschool education are the promotion of children’s personal and social development and well-being; expression, communication, curiosity, and critical thinking abilities; and to involve families in their children’s education.2,3

Compulsory education starts at age 6 and is mandatory for the next 12 years. Compulsory education is divided into basic education (nine years) and secondary education (three years). Basic education aims to ensure a common general education for all children, providing the fundamental knowledge and skills required for pursuing (upper) secondary education. It is divided into three cycles of study: first cycle (Grades 1 to 4); second cycle (Grades 5 to 6); and third cycle (Grades 7 to 9). The first and second cycles correspond to primary education (ISCED 1), and the third cycle corresponds to the lower secondary education (ISCED 2). Basic education has the following tracks: general basic education; specialized arts courses; vocational courses; and education and formation (preprofessional) courses. Secondary education (Grades 10 to 12, ISCED 3) is organized into different education or training tracks providing access to higher education or entering active life. The scientific-humanistic track prepares students to enter higher education in the sciences, technology, and humanities. Specialized arts tracks prepare students to either enter active life or to follow higher education studies in music and performance arts, audiovisual arts, and dance. Vocational, education and formation, and professional tracks prepare students to enter active life, but also allow the pursuit of higher education studies. The flexibility of transferring between courses oriented to enter active life or to pursue higher education is guaranteed. In addition to the core curricula enforced by the Ministry of Education and Science, schools have some autonomy to adapt and introduce specific professional and vocational tracks adapted to local contexts and economies.4,5

Higher education is provided at universities and polytechnic institutes according to the Bologna Principle signed by all EU countries. Students can obtain a bachelor’s degree (ISCED 6), a master’s degree (ISCED 7), or doctoral degree (ISCED 8) in the different areas of science and technology, arts and humanities, and the social sciences.

The Portuguese education system also has a recurrent education track targeting adults who have not completed one or more levels of education at the regular age.6,7

Languages of Instruction

Portuguese is the language of instruction in all public and private schools, with the exception of a few international private schools where the language of instruction is the language of the foreign curriculum adopted.

  • a As of December 17, 2015, the Ministry of Education and Science shortened its name to Ministry of Education, as described in Decree-Law No. 251-A (2015).