International School versus Public School in Spain

November 20, 2015 | Blog, Education

With an almost overwhelming selection of reputable International and Public schools across Spain, knowing where to begin your search can feel daunting. International families relocating to Spain have often hotly debated whether it is more beneficial to follow the local Spanish system, or to enter the more flexible (but at times costly) international school system.

International Schools


In Spain, there are two identifiable groups of international schools. The first teaches students in their native language, following the curriculum of their “home” nation, and may or may not teach Spanish as a second language (this usually leads to sitting the national qualifications of the home country, or the International Baccalaureate). The second group teaches in their native language but follows a curriculum based on the Spanish national system (leading to study for the Bachillerato from 16-18). The former will most likely host a majority of pupils from that specific country, while the latter will usually accommodate primarily Spanish pupils, with more Spanish being spoken socially. Both types of school will enable pupils to pursue higher education across Europe and the US.


Pros of an International School


– Children can follow the curriculum of their native country, and will remain proficient at reading and writing in their native language while becoming fluent in a second or third!

– Pupils become more proficient at languages in general, with a language (or two) spoken at home, the local language and a compulsory foreign language at school. For example, kids attending an international school in Catalunya will be trilingual (English, Spanish and Catalan) if following the Spanish curriculum, and multilingual if their parents are of different nationalities again!

– In Catalunya, local public schools are taught primarily in Catalan, therefore an international school will offer more emphasis on Spanish.

– A much easier option for transient families who are likely to spend just a few years living in Spain.

– Pupils are exposed to a diverse range of cultures in a multinational environment, encouraging openness and tolerance as well as a keen awareness of and interest in different languages and traditions.

– There are often smaller class sizes.

– The IB Curriculum is recognised by institutions around the world and encourages critical thinking skills as well as a tremendous breadth and depth of general knowledge.

– The quality of teaching is often higher (but not always), with native English teachers.

– International schools often boast better facilities and a more “campus” feel due to private sector funding and the (often pricey) fees.

– Higher education opportunities can be broader, with pupils having access to local universities or institutions abroad.

Cons of International Schools


– High fees can add a huge long-term expense, particularly if children are still at the primary school stage. The potential for fees to increase as the child moves higher up secondary school (especially in the sixth form, when the fees can jump up considerably) is also something to take into consideration.

– Many international school families can find themselves less integrated into the local community, tending to mix within expat social circles.

– Teachers are not always native speakers – something which can be frustrating for parents given the aforementioned high fees.

– With small, international communities, particularly in regions further from Spain’s larger cities, it might feel “bubble-like” at times.

– There can be a higher turnover of teachers, who are prone to return to better-paid teaching posts closer to home after a few years of valuable experience abroad.

– Access to resources (such as wider reading material for iGCSEs, A-Levels and IB exams) can be limited in local shops and libraries – however with most texts being available.

– Whereas many state schools are usually centrally located, many international schools are located on the outskirts of town (to allow for those spacious facilities) – this could mean a commute or longer school run.

Family experiences of international schools


My two children attend Hamelin-Laie International School which has just moved premises to Montgat, 15 minutes north of Barcelona. This has worked out perfectly for us, as it is located near to where we live in Cabrils and they receive a trilingual education – Spanish, Catalan and English. They follow the Spanish curriculum and a mix of American and local traditions. We had thought about sending our kids to a state school so that they could feel more integrated in the local community but we would be concerned about their level of Spanish (currently taught only 2 hours a week). They are super happy where they are and have a huge advantage being able to grow up tri-lingually with a knowledge of different cultures and traditions.
– Carrie Frais, MumAbroad Co-founder

My experience of education in the area is unique in that I am from close to Barcelona, with Catalan parents who chose to enrol me in the International German school aged 3. The language and social skills that this experience equipped me with have been invaluable and I would recommend it to anyone.

Coming from a non-international family with non-German speaking parents was difficult initially, particularly as they struggled to help me with homework, and the school took a strict attitude to pupils who spoke Spanish or Catalan at home, to the extent that my parents hired a Germain au pair for 3 years. Another more difficult aspect was maintaining friendships with local children in my town. The majority of my German classmates lived further from me, therefore the only way to socialise was to organise sleepovers at weekends (many of them also returned to Germany after a few years in Barcelona), and I inevitably felt like a foreigner in my own hometown. Fortunately, my parents recognised this and encouraged me to take piano, dance and singing lessons locally, where I formed a circle of “home friends”.

It is also important to consider the “Selectividad” exams later on, which must be taken in order to continue education in Spain. Nonetheless, the experience is incredible, the tools and life skills that you acquire are instrumental. My top tip to local families looking into international schools would be to engage with the community in other ways, through local festivals and extracurricular activities, and to just go for it!
– Helena Carrasco

Public Schools


In Spain, the state school system is highly regulated, with the same format and regulations in place across the country. However, due to the nation’s system of autonomous regions, it is important to take into account that bank holidays, weekly timetables, school holiday dates and languages may vary (for example, Catalan is the primary taught language in Catalunya). Compulsory, free education is from ages 6-16, with the majority of children attending free pre-schools much earlier. In Spain, the school system starts from age 3 (though it is not obligatory until age 6). There are three official stages of school; infants from 3-6, primary from 6-11, secondary 12-16 and then from 16-18 pupils sit the baccalaureate (or other options). Enrolment for September generally begins around March, however if your school of choice is full, do not despair – the local authorities are required to find a space for your child at a public school at any time.


Pros of Public Schools


– They are completely free (except for some extra curricular activities and school trips).

– Children will have local Spanish friends, leading to better long-term integration into the local community for the whole family.

– Your child will be fully bilingual (if not trilingual, depending on whether they learn a second language other than English at school), with a native grasp of Spanish.

– The process of being thrown into a completely foreign language will make children highly adaptable, and often more confident in a variety of social situations.

Cons of Public Schools


– Sometimes public schools have slightly larger class sizes than their fee-paying counterparts.

– The majority of English teachers are not native speakers, therefore a high standard of written English is something that can be lost.

– It may take longer to settle in and readjust, particularly if the language is new to the child.

– Certain autonomous regions teach in their regional dialect, with Spanish only being taught as a second language. This may lead to your child being fluent in a second language that is only spoken in a small part of the country, with their Spanish lagging behind.

– The majority of teachers may not speak English, which may become an issue if you wish to communicate about your child’s progress and do not speak the language. The same can be said for helping with your child’s homework.

– There isn’t a formal league table system, which can make choosing a school based on performance tricky.

– Admissions are worked out on a fixed point scheme with criteria such as proximity, the number of siblings in attendance etc, therefore families may not be allocated their first choice of school.

Family  experiences of public schools


My English parents moved to Spain wanting to assimilate into the local community as much as possible. I was born in Spain and always went to local public schools, both in Torrevieja (Alicante) and near Barcelona. I’ve always considered it to be positive to study in Spanish/Catalan. You can guarantee that you’ll have a native level of the local language, and as long as you speak English with your parents at home and immerse yourself in English-specific activities (reading, in my case) you will also have a native level of your mother tongue.

Being bilingual is always a plus; being fluent in English and Spanish before comings to Catalonia meant that I picked up Catalan really quickly. I started off with extra Catalan lessons to help me catch up with the rest of the class, and within a month the teacher decided they were no longer necessary. By going to a local school, you also pick up the customs and culture much quicker. Another advantage is that, in most cases, you can guarantee that you’ll go to school with the same group of kids and have the same group of friends during a longer period of time. The friends I went to the park with when I was little are the same ones I hung around with in my teens.

One of the negative aspects of Spanish/Catalan school is that, in general, their foreign language teaching is usually quite deficient, especially in the case of English in my experience. I wouldn’t count on improving your mother tongue at local school, since most foreign language teachers are Spaniards who have studied abroad for a short period of time, instead of native speakers. Another con is that, unless your parents have a decent level of Spanish/Catalan, they will generally be unable to help with homework, or at least to the degree that other children within your class will get help. You learn to compare your homework with your classmates or hope for the best.
– Sara Blackshire



Somewhere between public and private schools are government-funded concertades that incur a small monthly fee. Introduced in Spain in 1985, the concept is similar to academies or comprehensive schools in Britain, and they are attended by around 26% of Spanish pupils. Concertades are open to all but the admission process is inherently more rigorous than their free or fee-paying counterparts. Whereas a free public school in Catalunya might teach 100% in Catalan, a concertada might cost €250 a month and teach 70% in Catalan (and an international school might cost anywhere from double that, and teach in both Spanish and English with a small number of hours in Catalan).

Family experiences of Concertada Schools


When we first arrived in Barcelona 10 years ago we didn’t know how long we would be staying, so when it came to looking for a school for our 3-year-old we simply wanted something local and friendly. After visiting several of the local concertades we opted for Escola Pia Balmes.

When we made the decision to stay we decided to keep him at the same school rather than go down the international school route, as since we are both English we thought it better for him to go to a Catalan school so that he would achieve a native level of Catalan and Spanish and he/we would become fully integrated into the local community. We now have two boys and they are both very happy at the school and are fully trilingual in Catalan, Spanish and English. We were initially concerned about their level of written English but they are now part of the Pla Individual Intensiu programme for English, which means that they can follow different coursework (using UK curriculum books) to their classmates.
– Catriona Groves

This article first appeared in LF Style, the Lifestyle blog of Lucas Fox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two × 5 =