Francisco Javier García Crespo
Jesús Martín Montalvo
Luis Sanz San Miguel
José Luis Uriondo González
National Institute of Educational Evaluation
Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports

Overview of Education System

Spain is a country historically characterized by rich cultural and linguistic diversity. This diversity is reflected legally in the Spanish Constitution of 19781 and in the Statutes of Autonomy of the 17 autonomous communities and the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, across which the authority in Spain is territorially distributed.

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 also created a highly decentralized education system. The Spanish Government oversees legislation, basic structure, and cooperative initiatives with other nations, but the autonomous communities are responsible for all other aspects of education, including schools, curriculum, and financial and personnel management in their respective territories. Current educational regulations, including the Organic Law on Education,2 guarantee the uniformity and unity of the education system, while also allowing autonomous communities to make individual decisions. This law includes a proposal for regional cooperation among the education authorities to develop projects and programs of general interest, share information, and benefit from best practices. Thus, the curriculum has a centralized common framework that is developed and implemented by the autonomous communities and schools.3,4

In 2006, the Organic Law on Education legally validated the current basic structure of the Spanish education system, though this law did not modify the organization already established in 1990. The system is organized into school years (grades), cycles, and levels of education. The levels of education comprise preprimary education (ages 0 to 6), primary education (ages 6 to 12), and secondary education (ages 12 to 18).

Preprimary education is not compulsory. It is organized into two cycles—one for children ages 0 to 3, and a second for ages 3 to 6—with the second cycle being free of charge.

Primary education (Grades 1 to 6) and compulsory secondary education (Grades 7 to 10) comprise Spain’s basic education—10 years of schooling (generally ages 6 to 16) that is compulsory and free of charge.

Primary education (Grades 1 to 6) consists of three cycles of two academic years each. The Organic Law on Education established objectives that describe what student competencies should be developed at the primary level. The goal of the primary level is to provide all students with an education that allows them to concentrate on their personal development and their own well-being, as well as to acquire basic cultural skills related to oral expression and comprehension, reading, writing, and numeracy. Primary education also focuses on the development of social skills, work and study habits, and creative and emotional growth. The education provided in this level integrates different experiences and knowledge, and it adapts the instructional pace to individual student needs.

Secondary education is divided into two stages: compulsory secondary and post-compulsory secondary education. Compulsory secondary education comprises four years that generally correspond to students ages 12 to 16 (Grades 7 to 10). This stage of secondary education aims to provide students with the basic elements of culture (humanistic, artistic, scientific, and technological) that will make them conscientious citizens and allow them to pursue subsequent studies or directly enter the job market.

The compulsory secondary education stage is organized with the goal of providing a common core education for all students while also paying attention to student diversity. Schools can organize the curriculum in a flexible way and adopt measures necessary to cater to the diversity of their students. In doing so, however, every school must ensure that all its students can reach the targets set for compulsory secondary education without any discrimination that might prevent them from achieving the final qualification.

The mandatory curriculum, both in primary education and compulsory secondary education, is organized into subject areas regulated by law. Each subject area contains objectives, content, assessment criteria, and a particular contribution to eight common basic competencies, recommended by the European Union. These eight basic competencies are as follows:

  • Linguistic competence
  • Mathematical competence
  • Knowledge and interaction with the physical world
  • Information management and digital competence
  • Social and civic competence
  • Cultural and artistic competence
  • Learning to learn
  • Autonomy and entrepreneurship

Each subject area in the curriculum must contribute to students’ acquisition of these basic competencies, though some competencies link specifically to certain subject areas, as in the case of “mathematical competence” and “knowledge and interaction with the physical world.” By including these basic competencies in the curriculum, the Spanish education system aims to integrate both formal and informal learning, to enable students to apply their learning effectively in different situations and contexts, and to guide teaching practice by identifying essential content and assessment criteria while inspiring the teaching and learning processes.

Post-compulsory secondary education (Grades 11 to 12) includes the baccalaureate and vocational education intermediate level.

Lastly, higher education includes university (ISCED 5A and above); and higher level vocational education, higher level arts and design, and higher level sports education (ISCED 5B).

Languages of Instruction

The official language in Spain is Castilian Spanish, although four other official languages are used in different autonomous communities: Catalan, Galician, Valencian, and Basque. The language of instruction is Castilian except in communities with another official language, where schools use two official languages in education.

In Galicia, both Castilian and Galician are used, with the mother tongue used predominantly in preprimary and both languages used in primary and secondary education, so that students acquire a good command of the two languages. In the Valencian Community, Castilian or Valencian is used in schools, depending largely on the geographical location of the school as well as family choice. There are different models of instructional organization, but most schools offer a bilingual program. In Catalonia, Catalan is the language of instruction. In the Balearic Islands, both Catalan and Castilian can be used, but Catalan is the language of instruction in primary education. In Navarre and the Basque country, both Castilian and Basque are used, with variations based on the linguistic model chosen by the schools: language of instruction in Castilian or Basque and the other official language as a subject, or an intermediate option with different weight assigned to each language.5,6,7,8,9,10,11

As in other European countries, the number of schools in Spain that have adopted a Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) curriculum, in which some of the curriculum subjects are taught in English, has grown considerably in the past decade. All the autonomous communities, with the help of the central authorities, are introducing CLIL programs in schools.12