Key features of the education system
Education in Portugal is organised according to the democratic principles established by the Constitution of the Republic (1976), particularly the freedom to teach and learn (Art. No 43), as well as citizens’ rights and duties of the state in this area (Art. No 73-77). These same principles were the foundation of the Education Act (1986), which defines educational objectives, structures and modes of organisation.
Higher education is the responsibility of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education (Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior - MCTES), which is also responsible for defining and implementing policies affecting the national science and technology system.
The Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação - ME) is the governmental department responsible for defining, coordinating, implementing and evaluating national policy regarding the education system (pre-school, basic, upper secondary and out-of-school education), as well as for articulating education policy with qualification and vocational training policies.
Both vocational education and training, as well as adult education and training are the joint responsibility of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (Ministério do Trabalho, Solidariedade e Segurança Social – MTSSS). The duties of these ministries are undertaken by departments that are part of direct state administration, indirect state administration bodies, advisory bodies, and other organisations and entities within state-owned enterprises.
The school network is organised into school clusters, which have with their own administration and management bodies. They are made up of pre-school establishments, plus one or more teaching levels and cycles that share a common pedagogical project.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for managing the network of pre-school establishments, as well as basic and upper secondary schools. School clusters enjoy some autonomy in terms of pedagogy, managing teaching schedules and non-teaching staff. A number of recently implemented reforms have extended cluster autonomy to curriculum management (Decree-Law No 55/2018, 6 July), promoting decentralisation, assigning responsibilities to municipalities regarding investment, equipment and the maintenance of school buildings, provision of meals in establishments and management of non-teaching staff (Decree-Law No 21/2019, 30 January).
Higher education institutions enjoy scientific, pedagogical, cultural and disciplinary autonomy (Law No 62/2007, 10 September).
In the Autonomous Regions of the Azores and Madeira, the regional governments are responsible for defining national education policy in terms of a regional plan and managing human, material and financial resources, via the respective Regional Secretariats for Education.
Organisation and structures
Compulsory education lasts 12 years, between the age of six and 18 or until the conclusion of upper secondary education (ISCED 3). Public education is free and universal from the age of four, including the final years of pre-school.
The education system is comprehensive in structure involving long basic schooling with vocational choices at the beginning of upper secondary education (ISCED 3). In the first year of ISCED 3 (aged 15 or over), students may choose: a) science-humanities courses; b) vocational courses; c) other education and training provision.
The National System of Qualifications (Sistema Nacional de Qualificações - SNQ) includes structures, mechanisms and types of vocational education and training (Ensino e Formação Profissional - EFP) that, in articulation with the European Qualifications Framework (Quadro Europeu de Qualificações - QEQ), promotes upper secondary level as a minimum qualification for the population through greater EFP provision or the recognition, validation and certification of formal, informal and non-formal learning competences. In the case of adults, it aims to extend educational and qualification levels via the 'Qualifica' Centre network.
Evaluation in the Portuguese educational system is both formative and summative, as well as internal and external. There is external evaluation of learning at all ISCED levels: low-stakes tests (national, non-graded diagnostic evaluation to assess knowledge and improve learning) in the intermediate grades (grades 2, 5 and 8) of the 1st and 2nd and 3rd cycles of basic education (ISCED 1) and national final exams at the end of basic education (ISCED 2), in grade 9 (Normative Order No 1-F/2016, 5 April and Normative Order No 4-A/2018, 14 February). In upper secondary education (ISCED 3), students of science-humanities courses take four national final exams throughout the last two years of education (grades 11 and 12). External evaluation of schools is undertaken by a public educational inspection service, which makes the results public.
In recent decades, Portugal has made great efforts to improve the population’s level of qualifications, resulting in substantial progress in education:
- providing universal access
- reducing the number of school dropouts
- achieving the goals set by the EU and
- significantly improving Portuguese students’ performance in international comparative tests.
That said, the country continues to face challenges, such as high retention rates stemming from underprivileged socio-economic settings and a structural skills deficit of the adult population.
There is only one professional career for teachers of all non-higher education levels (from pre-school to upper secondary education), which requires a second-cycle degree (ISCED 7 - Master).
Stages of the education system
The Portuguese education system is divided in pre-school education (from the age of three until the start of basic education), basic education (six to 15 years old) and upper secondary education (15 to 18 years old).
Pre-school education (ISCED 0)
Pre-school education covers children from three years old up to the age of compulsory schooling (six years old). Attending pre-school education is optional, recognising the primacy of families’ role in children’s education, and is universal for children from the year they celebrate their third birthday. The network of establishments has been expanding as part of a policy of providing widespread availability.
Provision for children under three years old, with a special focus on childcare (CITE 010) (crèche), is not part of the education system and is the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security (MTSSS).
Basic education (ISCED 1 and 2)
Basic education is universal, compulsory, free and lasts nine years. It is divided into three sequential cycles; each should complete and build upon the previous one from a global perspective:
- the first cycle (CITE 1) corresponds to the first four years of schooling (grades one to four).
- the second cycle (CITE 1) corresponds to the next two years (grades five and six).
- the third cycle (CITE 2) lasts for three years and corresponds to lower secondary education (grades seven to nine).
The guiding principles of curriculum organisation and management aim to ensure a common general background education for all citizens, via the acquisition of fundamental knowledge and skills that allow further study.
Upper secondary education (ISCED 3)
Upper secondary education lasts for three years and corresponds to grades 10, 11 and 12 of upper secondary education, organised into different types. Some are geared towards further studies, others via dual certification (academic and vocational), the latter combining general, technical and work placement training. The permeability between the different paths is guaranteed, as is access via all of them to higher education through national exams.
Post-secondary non-higher education (ISCED 4)
Post-secondary non-tertiary education provision can lead to an NQF level 5 qualification and involves high-level technical training, geared towards integration in the job market, as well as the continuation of higher education studies. It usually lasts a year and is designed for young people over 18, who have concluded the 12 years of compulsory school.
This level can be obtained the following ways:
a) specialised technological courses (STC)
b) apprenticeship + courses
c) certified modular training
d) recognition, validation and certification of competences.
Higher education (ISCED 5 – 8)
Higher education is structured according to the principles of the Bologna Process to ensure solid scientific and cultural preparation, plus technical training that qualifies students for professional and cultural life, while developing their capability to innovate and apply critical analysis.
Portuguese higher education is a binary system that includes the university and polytechnic systems. Universities are oriented to offer solid scientific training, combining the efforts and competences of teaching and research units, while polytechnics focus on professionally oriented vocational and advanced technical training.
Adult education and training
There are various modes of adult education and training with specific aims and target groups, encompassing a system of recognition, validation and certification of skills acquired throughout life. Provision in this area is mainly included in the National Qualifications System/Catalogue and organised by a national network of "Qualifica" Centres, which cover the whole country, providing a guidance system for adults, while coordinating a vast network of training bodies. As such, they are focussed on obtaining both academic and vocational certification at the same time, although in some cases they may award only one of these.
Recurrent education is designed for adults who have not completed their basic or upper secondary education at the usual age. It follows a study plan based on the official curriculum and leads to the attainment of a qualification and the award of a diploma or certificate, equivalent to those conferred by daytime education.
For a more detailed description of these and other topics regarding the national education system, please see:
Chapter 1- Political, Social and Economic Background and Trends
Chapter 2 - Organisation and Governance
Chapter 3 - Funding in Education
Chapter 4 – Early Childhood Education and Care
Chapter 5 - Basic Education (Primary and Lower Secondary Education)
Chapter 6 - Upper Secondary and Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education
Chapter 8 - Adult Education and Training
Chapter 9 - Teachers and Education Staff
Chapter 10 – Management and other educational staff
Chapter 11 - Quality assurance
Chapter 12 - Educational Support and Guidance
Chapter 13 - Mobility and Internationalisation
For information on recently adopted or planned reforms and policy measures, please see the Chapter 14 - Ongoing Reforms and Policy Developments.
Structure of the national education system
Common European reference tools provided by the Eurydice Network
- National Student Fee and Support Systems
- Organisation of the Academic Year in Higher Education
- Organisation of School Time in Europe (Primary and general upper secondary education)
- Recommended Annual Instruction Time in Full-Time Compulsory Education in Europe
- Teachers and School Heads Salaries and Allowances in Europe .
Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security
Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education
Ministry of Economy and the Sea
Directorate-General for Education and Science Statistics
National Agency for Qualification and Vocational Education