Of all of the paperwork and research involved in moving abroad, none determines the long-term satisfaction of your child in a new country than the choice of school. Public, private, religious? Large or small? In the city or outside? Local, international, multilingual? For families with more than one child, a single school may not meet the individual needs of all and siblings may end up in different schools in Barcelona.
According to Anya van der Drift, Founder of My Barcelona School, which provides guidance and support to families in search of finding a school in Barcelona, most parents have similar concerns when it comes to choosing a school abroad.
Families worry about their children coping with many new things at the same time, since a move to a new school often coincides with a change of house, city, country, culture, and also language.
Where your children attend school will drive a large part of their happiness and overall adjustment to life in a new country. Making the best decision requires a clear understanding of the available options.
As an American mom of children enrolled in private and semi-private education systems in Barcelona, I can relate to the stress involved. Here’s an overview of what to expect and a peek at how my family arrived at our decisions.
Understanding the Education System in Barcelona
Depending on your situation and personal factors, such as language goals or finances, there are several options. Each option has its own distinct qualities and enrollment process.
Schools in Barcelona fall into one of three categories: public (publico), private/international (privado), or semi-private (concertado). Children are required by law to attend school between the ages of six and sixteen years old, although many children begin pre-school at age three. For younger children, guarderia or daycare options are available from birth to three years old.
The Spanish education system is divided into four key stages, two of which are mandatory.
- (Optional) Preschool (Educacion Infantil) – Ages 3-6. Many schools offer it and most children begin school at this stage.
- (Mandatory) Primary Education (Educación Primaria) – Ages 6-12
- (Mandatory) Secondary Education (Educación Secundaría) – Ages 13-16
- (Optional) Upper Secondary Education (Bachillerato) – Ages 16+
When my husband and I moved to Barcelona from the U.S., we quickly decided the international schools would be the best fit for our oldest two children. We felt it would give them an incredibly diverse cultural experience, as it has, while also placing them in an environment with other children who could relate to moving abroad or international families in general.
The language of instruction and curriculum at international schools in Barcelona are based upon a foreign country. Generally, international schools provide a high standard of education and can be quite expensive. Today, there are more than 35 international schools in this city, so having a traditional “process of elimination” method is absolutely necessary to define the most important criteria for your child. Some factors to consider include language, discipline, structure, diversity, final degree awarded (if your child will graduate from that school), and physical facilities. Obviously, budget also may be a driving element as you develop your short list of schools to consider.
Demand is high for admission into international schools, so expect space to be limited and a waiting list maintained. Keep in mind though that spaces may open up because these schools typically also have higher than average turnover rates from international families moving away from Barcelona to their next home.
In addition to tuition, expect to pay for books and materials, field trips, and meal plan (unless your child takes food from home). Some international schools also require students to wear uniforms. Finally, private schools may charge new families a one-time, per child capital fee to maintain a reserve fund for future building and facility expenses.
One important requirement (which came as a bit of a surprise to us), is the emphasis on the Catalan language and culture. If your child is a native Spanish speaker, they are required to study the Catalan language, starting at age six. If your child is not fluent in Spanish, they may take Spanish. However, all children take a special course on the culture and history of Catalunya.
Once you’ve selected your top three to four international/private schools, contact the Admissions Officer, who should be able to tell you what open spaces are available. If possible, tour the campus during school hours and with your child because school selection can ultimately boil down to a “feeling” about the environment. In addition, some international schools require your child to pass an entrance exam or attend a “tester” or “shadow a student” day to see how they like it.
At My Barcelona School, Anya van der Drift makes sure families approach each school visit with a firm idea of what is important and encourages them to bring questions about language support, daily schedule and class sizes. “Take notes!” she says.
If you plan to visit more than a handful of schools, it’s very easy to forget what it was you liked about the first school or didn’t like about the second.
Once the school is chosen, enrollment is quite straightforward and handled by the institution itself.
Costs vary greatly depending on the curriculum and offerings. Almost all private/international schools require a matriculation fee (a one-time admissions fee to secure your child’s place). These can range anywhere from a couple of hundred euros to a few thousand. Also expect a one-time, capital expense charge to support the long term cost of the physical school facilities. Certain schools also have an annual administration charge, usually applied around March for the purpose of reserving a place for the following year. Lastly, pay attention to the additional fees beyond annual tuition, including for meals, bus service, extracurricular activities, off-site trips, uniforms, and materials.
These schools are subsidized by the government and are known to offer lower school fees than the pricey international/private ones. The standards and curricula of these schools are mostly run independently and differ between districts. The general assumption is that semi-private schools in more affluent areas are of better quality.
Semi-private schools are a good option for parents who prefer medium class sizes (20-25 students). Generally, these schools conduct their instruction in Catalan, but may also integrate other languages – Spanish and English most commonly.
Anya van der Drift mentions, “If choosing a public or semi-private school, parents need to come to terms with the fact that their children may not be understood at first,” which can be a hard reality. But full immersion into the local language also means children learn it fairly quickly.
If you are an English-speaker, there will invariably be someone who knows at least some level of English. Most schools will do their best to make you feel comfortable and try to help you.
We can absolutely attest to this. Our third daughter attends the semi-private school near home and we are very happy. Yes, I was a nervous wreck throughout the application process and during her first few weeks. But ultimately, it was the right decision for her because she is so young and has no other school experience to compare to.
Her class is predominantly Catalan, though there is some level of diversity at the school with Italian, Brazilian, and Asian children also attending. If you have any concerns about how your child and family will fit into the Catalan community of a semi-private or public school, Anya recommends attending school events, making playdates, and finding connecting with other parents, especially those who speak English.
The enrollment processes are the same for the public and semi-private systems because they are both part of the greater Catalunya Education Department.
The public-school system in Barcelona is tuition-free, but some will require parents to pay for things such as materials and books. Uniforms usually are not required.
As the curriculum is determined by the Generalitat de Catalunya, the language of instruction is, of course, in Catalan. For those parents whose goal is to fully immerse their children into the local language and culture, a public school will provide their children with a fantastic opportunity to do so. Just keep in mind that older children who don’t speak or understand Catalan may have a longer adjustment period.
Side-by-side comparison across each school category:
|Materials/Books||Included||Varies by school||Varies by school|
|Language||Independent, with Catalan studies or language required depending on child’s native Spanish fluency||Catalan mostly with Spanish/English or other language integrated||Catalan mostly with Spanish/English or other language integrated|
|Enrollment||Independent||Consorci de Educacio||Consorci de Educacio|
|Class Sizes||<20 students||<25 students||<30 students|
Enrollment Specifics for Public & Semi-Private Schools:
[UPDATE: Due to COVID-19 precautions, pre-registration for the local public schools will happen online. You can access the application here.]
Both the semi-private and public-schools in Barcelona are part of the public education system. Therefore, the process of enrollment is approached in the same manner…and can be confusing.
- School Open Days
The application process starts early in the year, with Portes Obertes de l’Escola (school open days) taking place from mid-February. This is where visitors will have a chance to tour the grounds, meet with staff/teachers and gain a better understanding of what each school offers.
Check out the Calendar of Open Days on the Consorci d’Educacio de Barcelona website and be aware of the deadlines.
If you do not speak Catalan, contact the school in advance to see if an English-speaking member of the staff is around that day. This turned out to be a huge help when first visiting my daughter’s school and being able to ask (and have answered) our countless questions!
- Address Verification
Unlike international schools where your home address does not determine eligibility for enrollment, public and semi-private schools are determined based on where you live. Enter your address here to determine which schools are available in your area.
Applications are weighted according to a points system – the more points you have, the higher priority your application gets. How many points you have depends on a number of criteria. For example, you get 30 points for living in the school’s catchment area and 40 additional points if your child has a sibling already enrolled at the school.
When it is time to officially enroll in early Spring, access the application form here and list your top four (up to 10 maximum) school choices. You may then deliver your application to your top choice school or the Ajuntament Office along with the following documentation:
- Passport or Family Book (Libro de Familia)
- NIE/DNI identification
- ID for child (only mandatory after 14 years old)
- Health Card
- Documentation to backup any additional point criteria such as Tarjetas de La Familia Nombrosa (for families with three or more children, which are considered “large families”)
Applications are sorted through and places allocated, first according to points, then a lottery system. The lists are put up on a noticeboard outside the school or online (ask when you submit your application). Typically a family’s first choice school is awarded. In the event that it is not, applicants must wait until the final lists have been published in early May.
This step ensures you are accepting a place in the assigned school. Remember to bring all the same documentation listed above plus your child’s vaccination records.
Once this is completed, you’re all finished. The only thing left to do is wait for specifics from the school about materials/books, uniforms (if applicable) and other supplies to purchase.
The task of selecting a school in this city, or any city for that matter, can be daunting. Stay organized, clearly identify your goals, be patient with the process, and stay positive. You will inevitably make the very best decision for your children and family.
Here’s a handy checklist chart to download for your research notes.
Guest Author: Lauren Covino-Smith is the creator and writer for The Expat Chronicle, a lifestyle blog featuring tips and tales about her American family’s experiences living abroad. Lauren’s hope is for readers to laugh at their mistakes, learn from their experiences and be inspired to also move abroad. Her articles have been published in The Expat Magazine, Triptipedia, The Expat Cast and several travel blogs. When she’s not writing, she’s usually taking photos, browsing interior design stores, or enjoying sidewalk performers with her husband and three kids.