The Nuts and Bolts of Moving to Spain, Part 3: Schools

June 2, 2018

Getting your child registered for school outside of your home country can be a confusing and stressful process. But it's worth it! Here's what we learned in the process. Picking up from Part 2, the Empadronamiento: 

In Barcelona, the school system is a little different than it is in the United States. There are public schools, which are free and paid for by tax dollars just like in the US, and private schools supported by tuition. But then there is also a category of schools called “concertadas” which are subsidized private schools. You could say they’re like charters, but since they are supported by to a certain extent by tuition, and also have more accountability to the government than the average charter, that comparison sort of breaks down. The concertadas are also often affiliated with the Catholic church—a fact which goes back to Franco’s time, when the church was more or less a part of the federal government. 


Grades in Spain


The grades in Spain are also somewhat different. All schools—public, private, or concertada—begin at age 3, with the youngest grade being P3. Though most families start the children in school in P3, schooling isn’t mandatory until kids are 6 years old, at which point they start first grade. They’ll then typically be in the same school until they’re 16 or so, at which point students can either choose to finish their last two years of high school in a vocational school or get some kind of pre-college education. 


Also unlike the US, students are assigned to grade levels based on their birth year. In other words, every kid born in 2014 is going to enter P3 in 2017, regardless of whether they’ve turned 3 by the first day of school or not. So our son, who was born in February, was one of the oldest kids in his grade. It’s not uncommon for children switching from the Spanish to American school systems (and vice versa) to go ahead or back a grade based on their age, so if you’ve got slightly older children that is something to keep in mind. 


Which School Can You Go To?


One other major difference is how the students are zoned for schools. Instead of being zoned to a single school, once you’ve got your empadronamiento in a district in Barcelona (which was Grácia for us), you are entitled to attend any concertada or public school in that district. Grácia has something like 40 to 50 schools, and we could have signed up to go to any one of them.


"Open Doors" and Pre-Inscription Periods


Typically in late February or early March, every school in Barcelona will have “portes obertes,” or open houses, where prospective parents can come check out the school, learn a little about the teachers and the pedagogy, and generally get an idea of which school they would prefer to send their kids to.


Then, sometime in late March or early April, they have a pre-inscripción period, during which parents can register for schools. I don’t really have any first hand knowledge of what this is like, but I’ve been told that you send the city’s education ministry your top three choices for schools, and then they do some kind of complicated calculations to determine who should get the limited spots available in each school, and then you somehow find out later which school your kids have been registered for. 


We moved to Barcelona in August, though, which is well after the preinscripción period closed. So we knew that there would be relatively slim pickings in our school choices. Knowing that, I figured I’d only look at concertadas, assuming that since they have a small tuition they’d be most likely to have open spots. I had a basic idea of which were my favorites, having fallen particularly in love with a school when I came to visit schools in the spring, but was open to whatever was available. 


Registering Late


If you miss the preinscripción period like we did, then you have to make an appointment with the Consorci d’Educació to register for school. That’s the central office in Barcelona that administers basically everything having to do with education, from age 3 to grad school, within the city. The thing is that that office, like every other teacher in the world, took a vacation during the summer—so when we landed in late August, the earliest appointment we could get was on the third of September, the first day the office was open after the summer break. We made our appointment for noon that day, and planned on showing up a little bit early. That day, we caught the train and got to the office at 11:30—plenty of time to get there for our appointment. 




By the time we arrived at the office, there was already a line around the block. Apparently  a lot of other people had things they needed to figure out with the office the first day the were open, two weeks before the first day of school. Not knowing what to do, since it was obvious that we weren’t going to get to the front of that line in time for our noon appointment, I went to the front to ask if the line was for people who had appointments. 


When I asked that question, the woman at the front simply started serving me, causing everyone behind me in the line to get super, super angry. One woman started smacking me on the back, yelling “Hay una cola!” Unfortunately, I didn’t have the language skills at that time to explain to her that I didn’t mean to cut in line, I just didn’t know what to do. So I pretended I didn't understand what she was saying and continued doing what I was doing. 


The woman at the front gave me a number, and then we waited. We waited for an absurdly long time—maybe an hour or so—before our number was called. And then began one of the more bizarrely inefficient bureaucratic processes I’ve yet experienced. 


When we got to the desk, we stood in front of the clerk and explained that we were trying to register our son for P3, we showed him our empadronamiento that showed we lived in Grácia, and said we wanted to know which public and concertada schools had openings for him. Given the amount of central control in Barcelona’s schools, you’d guess that there would be some sort of central database in which clerks at the Consorci d’Educació can easily see what the enrollment numbers are in each school. That guess would be wrong.


Instead, to find out where there were openings, the clerk grabbed a blank piece of paper and began checking every single school in Grácia, one at a time, starting with the ones closest to our apartment. We stood there, mouths agape, as he wrote the names of each and every school, writing the number of available spots in each, with the speed and care of a very well educated turtle. 


Eventually, it came out that there were really only two schools with openings available, and luckily for us one of them was the school I’d liked the most in my earlier travels. Lucky us! We told him we wanted to register for that school, and began the process right then. We gave him the needed documentation—our empadronamiento, passports for both me, Lindsay, and our son—and after about fifteen minutes or so he handed us a document saying that we were registered for the school of our "choice." The next step was to take that document to the school, and they would bill us for tuition and set everything else up. 


We finally left that office at 2 pm, and had a really nice lunch afterwards to celebrate. At this point, we really started to feel like we were picking up momentum. Which is good, because we’d all heard horror stories about the next step: the NIE. 


Read all posts in this series: The Nuts and Bolts of Moving to Spain


Part 1: The Visa


Part 2: The Empadronamiento

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