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Barcelona Village

Introduction to the primary school system

We only have experience of primary schools so far, and possibly some of our experiences are just related to the school we use and just to the state sector schools, but some things we're pretty sure are general to schools around the city.


The school system in Barcelona is arranged according to city district - we are in Sant Marti for example. Primary schools are large by UK standards with around 500 pupils per school, but the schools are well spread through the city and ours - the third closest to us - is only 10 minutes walk away. Class sizes are normally a maximum of 25, but in particular circumstances (and this is a big issue to schools and parents) they can be extended to 26.

Primary schools take children from 3 until 12. Below the age of 6 children are considered to be at kindergarten (P5 to P3). However, they still do things like learning numbers and letters at this age. Proper school starts at age 6 and is split into three groups, inicial, medio and superior from years 1 to 6. Below 3 children often attend a guarderia or kindergarten such as Kaola.

The school in-take is based on calendar year rather than the UK September basis. This meant our eldest born in October went from being the oldest in his class in the UK to one of the youngest in the class in BCN and he effectively moved up a school year (we certainly had to help with a jump in maths for example).


State schools in Barcelona are taught in Catalan, not Spanish. Not only this but all the communications from the schools to parents will be in Catalan. We can generally cope reading (with the help of a dictionary), but send notes to school written in Spanish. In addition to Catalan, pupils learn Spanish and English and our school has several English teachers who have greatly helped our children right from kindergarten age (thanks Isabel in particular).

The mix of languages at years 1 and above (6+) has been 4 hours Catalan, 3 hours English and 2 hours Spanish. We understand this is changing to balance Spanish and Catalan more in coming years. For some other ex-pat parents this has been a problem as they live in Spain but their children don't necessarily know Spanish that well if they return to their native country. In addition there are a high proportion of native Spanish speakers in BCN around 45% of the population, so for many of these children they have Catalan at school and Spanish at home.

The school day

The school day runs from 9am (the gates to the school open at 9) until 5, or as has just changed from 8:30 to 4:30. There is a two hour gap for lunch from 1pm, but we leave our children at school over the lunch period. For those in kindergarten who stay at school teachers try to encourage a siesta after lunch. In addition, the schools parents association (AMPA - Association de Madres and Padres) arrange activities after school that mean children can be at school until 5:30 or 6pm.

Almost all schools seem to have high walls and gates which makes them look a little intimidating, but once inside you will find a hard court playground (pati) with basketball nets, football goals and slides and a lot of shaded areas. It is rare to find green spaces in the schools, although our school has a horta (kitchen garden).

At the beginning and end of the day parents congregate around the outside of the school waiting for the gates to open. It is very unusual for parents to drive children to school in Barcelona, partly because schools are very local, but also because of traffic and parking. If you need to go into the school during the day, you will need to press a buzzer to get in from the outside.


AMPA - the Association of Mothers and Fathers - is a very important part of the school. AMPA is where you buy the books and schools clothes that you need (for instance gym kit in standard school colours) and it organises the lunchtime cover in addition to the after school activities, in addition to arranging events for the parents. At our school AMPA it has an area in the school set aside as shop for kit and equipment such as school agendas which is open from the end of school for about 2 hours.

Our after school activities range from swimming to football, basketball and dance or 'general' (talars de joc) which is more like an after school club with a range of activities.

Educational content

For most lesson activities, the school follows set books. For instance in Socials (history and geography) the children work through a proscribed text book almost page-by-page. Even in the kindergarten classes you have to buy a set activity book which is then used to guide activities such as drawing, painting and learning shapes.

What this means is that pupils need to have bought the set books at the beginning of the year from AMPA or Abacus (an educational co-operative on Ausias Marc) - they are not provided, in addition to suitable work books.

Pupils generally write in pencil and a great deal of emphasis is placed on handwriting and writing neatly in joined up. This runs to the extent that many younger age reading books are printed in a joined up style. (As someone who types almost all the time this doesn't seem such a useful idea).

Older pupils work through around 2 chapters of their book and then face a test (internal school test). The level expected of an eight year old is quite high in content (What are the consituent minerals in granite? What's a river delta? Name key bones in the body?), but seems to be largely rote learning. Our school did have a science week, but we're not entirely sure how much exploratory work is done away from the proscribed books - currently our children are still getting to grips with the language and like all children tend to have forgotten the day's activities as soon as they leave school.

We're also not sure if there is as much emphasis on IT as there would be in the UK. However there is a great deal of emphasis on practical arts (plastica) and music - there is a lot of singing. Our school has a very active music teacher who also happens to be school secretary and the school regularly takes part in concerts, puts on shows and other activities.

Although Spain is a catholic country, religious education is optional and the school itself is very secular in nature. Although there are visits made to the neighbouring parroquia (priory) for concerts, there is no school assembly and festivals like Christmas are more about concerts than a navity play. Parents choose if their pupils do RE (specifically catholic religious education) or 'alternativo' which is usually about citizenship. The split for the two is around 50:50.

Other activities

In addition to school there are also regular programmes of visits - to the hills and mountains around Barcelona, to the theatre 2-3 times a year and to city museums and important Catalan businesses such as Torres vineyards or Sabadell airport. For older children the school provides a skiing week in the Pyrenees during the winter.

The children in years 1 and 2 do swimming on Wednesdays supervised by the coaches at the swimming pool (see the details of sports for how this is arranged) and there is an end of term gala to which parents are invited. AMPA provide swimming for as a weekly activity for those under 5.

The school itself is very active musically with lessons for a wide range of musical instruments - two formal orchestras, one for under 8s and one for over 8s and a guitar orchestra. The musical activities are linked to an external music school and involve participation in concerts outside school hours.

In the times we've had to visit the school for meetings, one of the English teachers has often been around to help with translation - our Spanish is improving but most of the subjects are outside your typical language course.


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