Harry King retired from corporate life in Britain to live in Spain. He would do so all over again if faced with the same decision and now lives near Alicante. He is the author of a number of books on Spain.
The state funded school system is co-educational, highly structured, lengthy, free and has been overhauled in the last decade. The state education system runs alongside private, foreign and international schools. It is compulsory between ages 6 to 16. Learning is a serious matter, with both students and parents committed to education as a gateway to a good career. The stages and levels are:
- Pre School Education: Voluntary;
- Primary Education: Compulsory;
- Secondary Education: Compulsory;
- Bachillerato: Voluntary;
- Vocational Training: Voluntary;
- University: Voluntary.
The academic year runs from September until June. Children start compulsory schooling in the September of the calendar year in which they are 6 years old. In order to progress from one cycle of education to the next, students in state schools have to meet teaching and learning objectives. Compulsory schooling could last longer than in the UK where students progress from one year to the next automatically.
The language of instruction is Spanish or a combination of Spanish and a regional language. Teachers employed in the state sector do not necessarily speak English, and in any event lessons are not taught in English. If English is taught as a foreign language, which is mostly the case, then there is a teacher at the school whose main job is to teach English.
Parents must pay for books, materials and any extracurricular activities. Low income families may be able to get a grant for these items. School uniform is not always a pre-requisite.
For a foreign child to apply for a place at a Spanish state school which is publicly funded the parents ‘passports, the child’s full birth certificate, marriage papers and documentary evidence of domicile in Spain are required. For older children, age 14 upwards, it may be necessary to have results of their studies in the UK officially validated.
Pre school education
Pre school education is divided into two parts. The first part is for ages one to three and the second part ages four to six. Attendance is both voluntary and free, with nearly all children aged between four and six attending for some time before starting primary education. Free state pre schools are supplemented by private fee-paying nursery schools. Introducing children to the school environment, coordination skills, self-awareness and group activities are objectives of pre school education.
Compulsory primary education begins at six years of age for a period of six years, ending at age 12. There are three cycles, each of two years, during which the student is continuously evaluated. In addition to standard subjects the curriculum includes, where appropriate, an autonomous local language, music, physical education and a foreign language, which is usually English. Students who pass mis stage go on to secondary education but those who do not have to repeat the final year.
Compulsory secondary education covers ages 12 to 16 years. It completes the compulsory part of education and successful pupils enter bachillerato or vocational training. The four years of secondary school are divided into two, two-year cycles, with the curriculum containing both compulsory and optional subjects. The curriculum is not all academic, and technical subjects, part of the vocational training, are introduced.
A pupil who does not pass the first cycle is required to repeat a year. Successful students at the end of the second cycle are awarded a ‘Graduate in Secondary Education’. Those not successful receive a certificate stating the school years completed and the qualifications obtained in each subject. About 50% of pupils drop out of the full time educational system at this point.
The Certificate of Secondary Education is similar to GCSE and the Bachillerato is similar to ‘A’ levels. Therefore Spanish qualifications are acceptable for entrance to universities in the UK.
Bachillerato Unificado y Polivalente or BUP simply means ‘a pupil who has passed his graduation exam’. It is a non-compulsory part of secondary education providing pupils with two, free, academic courses each of one year’s duration. It is a gateway to the university entrance exam or advanced vocational training, and a bridge between school and the mature world outside. In addition to the core subjects four modes exist in the arts, health and environment, technology and social sciences. Some modes are obligatory in order to follow certain university courses. The bachillerato is recognised as an entrance qualification by universities worldwide.
The first part of free vocational training provides a general introduction to a practical, technical career such as clerical work, electronics, graphics, design or hairdressing. The second part provides specialised training with pupils dividing their time between studies and on-the-job experience.
Given a choice between Bachillerato and vocational training, the trend is towards vocational training. Why? A job and earnings are close to hand. The thought of a long education through university is daunting. It is also easier for the less academically gifted. However there is flexibility between educational establishments, the labour market and vocational training which enables successful pupils to take additional specialist bachillerato courses and then proceed to a higher education.
There are four different types of university:
- University schools where a three-year vocational diploma is offered in a subject like teaching or nursing;
- University colleges where a three-year course of study leading to a licenciado is completed;
- Faculties where five-year courses are offered in all academic disciplines leading to the equivalent of MSc with further studies the equivalent of PhD;
- Advanced Technical Engineering or Architecture where five-year technical courses are undertaken.
About a quarter of all pupils go to university. The education standards are comparable with the best in Europe. Foreign universities, where courses are shorter and more flexible, attract wealthy Spanish students.
Around a quarter of all Spain’s schoolchildren attend private schools. They have small classes, are more relaxed and have a less rigid regime than state schools. Spanish schools can be state- or privately-owned. Fees are payable in some private schools, but not all. Some private schools are subsidised by the Spanish government and therefore tuition is provided free.
There is a wide range of private co-educational schooling including Spanish, bilingual and international schools which follow a variety of syllabuses including British and Spanish. However most Spanish private schools teach wholly in Spanish, are state-subsidised and follow the Spanish state-school curriculum. Some international schools follow the Spanish curriculum, but bilingually in English and Spanish.
This provides language skills to their pupils and attracts a state subsidy.
English speaking parents with young children will be aware that the sooner a child is exposed to a multi lingual situation the better. Conversely an older child will have more problems in adjusting. Foreign parents often prefer to educate younger children in Spanish nursery and primary schools, where they quickly learn Spanish, and then send children of secondary school age to a private school.
As with any state system, Spanish schooling is not without criticism -some complaining it is weighed down with traditional and unimaginative teaching methods, poorly paid and poorly motivated teachers. But this view is not universal. Some have nothing but praise for the Spanish school system, delighted their children are doing so well and more importantly, are happy and well adjusted.
The younger a child when entering the Spanish school system, the easier they cope. The language is assimilated quickly and although the first month can be traumatic, it isn’t long before young children are speaking Spanish well. It is also the case that the older child has greater problems. Teenagers find it much more difficult learning the language, integrating socially and dealing with a demanding school curriculum. The result is often an unhappy child, at a difficult time in life and poor school results. It is understandable that so many older foreign children coming to live in Spain are sent to private. English-run schools. Here they can continue in the education system they know, and at the same time learn Spanish.
Most foreign children cope well with being educated in Spain be it private or state education. Living in a foreign land is an adventure which offers both change and challenge and most rise to the occasion. In no time at all their thinking becomes international, allowing their behaviour to become the same in later life. Spanish children are aware that the EU is made up of many different nationalities as most attend schools with pupils from different countries.
There is a growing number of international schools in Spain which follow a British curriculum. Fees for day students are usually lower than school fees in the UK, but demand for places can be high. Some English-speaking, private, international schools follow the American curriculum. Whichever style is chosen, most international schools are required to teach a small part of the Spanish curriculum in addition to the international one.
There are a few private schools in Spain with bilingual programmes. These are different to most international schools because children will be taught in more than one language. Many bilingual schools are private schools in that they do not receive any funding from the Spanish government, but some grant maintained private schools offer a bilingual education too. Some state schools are introducing a bilingual system with half of the school day following the curriculum in English.
Thirty per cent of Spanish schoolchildren are currently being educated in private schools, most of which are co-educational day schools. Ninety per cent of all children between the age of four and five attend nursery school and over 55% of students remain at school until their 18th birthday. Of these, a further 25% go on to vocational training and 30% to university.
The Spanish are healthy people. Their diet of fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil instead of unsaturated fats, plus a glass of red wine per day contributes to this. For sufferers of rheumatism, arthritis and bronchitis, Spain’s climate is therapeutic. A relaxed lifestyle can have a positive effect on mental health since it is a well-known fact that people who live in sunnier climates are generally happier than those who live in cold, wet climates.
Spain has no special health risks apart from over indulgence. Tap water is in the main drinkable although during periods of shortage the quality may suffer and people revert to bottled spring water. Red wine is plentiful, cheap and beneficial when consumed in moderation.
Complaints associated with smoking-related ailments are high. Smoking is the leading cause of death among adults, with cheap cigarettes causing 55,000 deaths per year: Spain has the second highest number of smokers in the EU.
Health care facilities are good. Medical staff are highly trained and hospitals equipped with the latest technology. The public and private systems live happily together. The Red Cross also makes an important contribution. Spain’s health system is very different from the UK.
EU residents visiting Spain can take advantage of health care agreements providing their home country has a reciprocal agreement with Spain. The UK does. EU residents should apply for a European Health Insurance Certificate (EHIC) three weeks before planning to travel. The EHIC card is used for valid emergency or urgent medical treatment. If payment is required, obtain a receipt and apply for reimbursement back home.
A person under retiring age who has paid regular social security contributions in another EU country for two full years prior to coming to Spain is entitled to public health cover for a period of six months by passing on cost of treatment to their former social security system. For ex-UK residents, this benefit is approved in advance by the Social Security office in Newcastle.
New permanent residents
Temporary health cover administered through EHIC is not an acceptable solution for Spain’s new permanent residents. It is of course possible to take out medical insurance, which is one way of dealing with this issue.
Emergencies, visits to the doctor and hospital are normally covered by such a policy but medicines and dental treatment are usually not.
Public health benefits under the Spanish state health scheme called INSALUD (Institute Nacional de la Salud), include general and specialist medical care, hospitalisation, laboratory services, medicines, maternity and some dental care. Anyone who pays regular social security contributions to INSALUD by virtue of their employment is entitled, for themselves and family, to free medical treatment.
Free entry into the scheme is allowed for:
- EU residents holding a residencia who are in receipt of a state pension and are over 60 (female) or 65 (male);
- A dependant of someone (wife or husband) can also enter the scheme provided they are both residents of Spain. For example, a man not yet 65 who is married to a wife who is 60, is regarded as a dependent and both are entitled to enter the scheme;
- EU nationals, resident in Spain, who are disabled or receive invalidity benefit;
- EU nationals of retirement age, but not in receipt of a pension, may be entitled to health benefits.
Here is the procedure to obtain a Tarjeta de Sanitaria (Health Card):
- Obtain form E121 from the Social Security Office back home;
- Assemble a residencia (or proof of application), a passport and a copy and NIE;
- Go to the appropriate Social Security office to complete some paperwork;
- Follow directions to a nominated Medical Centre who will allocate a doctor.
What to do in an emergency
In a life-threatening emergency call for an ambulance and mention the nature of the emergency. Telephone numbers, which can vary from province to province, are in the phone book, near the start, under the heading Servicios de Urgencia. Ambulances come under the umbrella of social security ambulances, Red Cross ambulances or 24-hour private medical centre ambulances. They are equipped for emergencies with staff trained to provide first-aid. The ambulance service is usually free.
Taxis must transport medical emergencies to hospital when requested to do so. A private car can claim priority by switching on its hazard warning lights and waving a piece of white material from the window.
In an emergency go to a hospital casualty department or a 24-hour public health clinic. It may be important to check which local hospitals are equipped to deal with the situation. In an emergency a hospital must treat you regardless of ability to pay.
Finding a doctor who speaks English can be a problem. In the public sector the doctors are Spanish and are unlikely to speak English. In the private sector, particularly in cities and resort areas, there are many English-speaking German and Scandinavian doctors. Private-sector doctors advertise their services in the expatriate press.
Private health insurance gives a choice of doctor from a list provided. Within the public sector the choice is nil –the patient is allocated a doctor. Within the private sector, specialists do not require patients to have a doctor’s referral although this is necessary in the public sector.
A chemist (farmacia) is recognised by a green-cross sign. The address of the nearest 24-hour chemist and list of duty chemists is posted outside and published in local newspapers. A pharmacist in Spain owns and runs his own business. Chains of chemist shops are illegal.
Prescriptions under the public health scheme are charged at 40% of the cost of the medicine (or nothing at all if a pensioner or disabled). Basic medication, such as aspirin or cough medicine purchased in supermarkets in some countries, can only be purchased from a farmacia in Spain. Chemists are highly trained and provide free medical advice for minor ailments. They are able to sell remedies without recourse to a doctor, and can supply a wide range of medicines without prescription.
Chemists sell prescription drugs, non-prescription medicines, cosmetics, diet foods and toiletries. A drogueria sells non-medical items such as toiletries, cosmetics and household cleaning items, but not medicines. A herboristeria sells health foods, diet foods and herbal remedies.
Hospitales de la seguridad social (public hospitals) and hospitales privados (private hospitals) are the core of the health system, together with other establishments such as nursing homes, emergency clinics and analysis laboratories. Admittance or referral to a hospital or clinic for treatment is by a doctor or a specialist. Conversely it is possible to leave hospital at any time by signing a release form.
For private patients it is essential to provide evidence of health insurance or the ability to pay. If a private insurance company does not have an arrangement with a hospital to pay direct, then the bill has to be paid by the individual and the cost reclaimed later.
Spanish families are accustomed to looking after their relatives while in hospital and even after they return home. Patients are expected to convalesce at home, not in hospital and they are often discharged earlier than would be the case in many other countries.
Most foreigners are very satisfied with treatment in Spanish hospitals.
The difference in treatment varies little between the best public and private hospitals. It stands comparison with the best the UK can offer.
There are many private English-speaking dentists. They are permitted to advertise their services and do so freely. Dentists expect to be paid immediately after treatment is completed.
Although the optical business is highly competitive (simply count the number of shops in a main street) and prices for spectacles are not controlled, it is surprising to find glasses are more expensive in Spain than in other European countries. An ophthalmologist in Spain is the same as anywhere else –a specialist doctor trained in diagnosing and treating disorders of the eye. performing sight tests and prescribing spectacles and contact lenses.