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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary Education


6.Upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary Education

Last update: 29 March 2024

Upper secondary education

According to the Education Act, every student who successfully completes basic education has access to upper secondary education.

Upper secondary education comprises three years of schooling (grades 10, 11 and 12) and is currently compulsory for all students aged up to 18. It corresponds to ISCED level 3 or QNQ/QEQ levels 3 or 4 when this level is completed via a dual certification vocational education course (see Subchapter 6.6. Assessment in Vocational Upper Secondary Education).

Until 2009, upper secondary education was optional. Since then, following Law 85/2009, 27 August, which established compulsory education for children and young people aged between 6 and 18, it has become universal, free, and compulsory.

Objectives and political context

According to the Education Act, general educational aims for upper secondary education are as follows:

  • To develop students’ capacity for reasoning, reflection and scientific curiosity, as well as the expansion of the basic elements of humanities, artistic, scientific and technical culture that constitute an appropriate cognitive and methodological basis for further studies and working life.
  • To provide young people with the essential knowledge to understand aesthetic and cultural expression and allow them to improve their own artistic expression.
  • To foster the acquisition and application of increasingly in-depth knowledge based on study, critical thinking, observation and experimentation.
  • To educate young people interested in solving national problems and making them aware of the problems affecting the international community, on the basis of the regional and national context and respect for the permanent values of society in general, and Portuguese culture in particular.
  • To provide contact with and experience of the world of work, strengthening the ties between school, working life and the community, and by stimulating the innovative and participative role of the school.
  • To foster the vocational guidance and training of young people by means of technical and technological knowledge that will help them find work.
  • To create individual and group working habits and to foster the development of methodical reflection, open-mindedness, awareness and acceptance of others, and the capacity to adapt to change.

Education policy views education as a key means of promoting social justice, equal opportunities and quality education. This implies ensuring that success translates into effective and meaningful learning, with consolidated knowledge that is used in real situations that foster the development of high-level skills, which, in turn, contribute to successful citizenship in the context of the challenges posed by contemporary society. 

The competences set out in the Exit Profile of students leaving compulsory schooling are transversal and transdisciplinary, interrelating and mobilising a solid set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values. The successful citizen is knowledgeable, but also capable of integrating knowledge, solving problems, mastering different scientific and technical languages, cooperating, being autonomous, having aesthetic and artistic sensitivity, as well as taking care of their own well-being.

To achieve better learning that supports higher-level skills, the Government programme includes guidelines for implementing an educational policy that, considering the core position of schools, students and teachers, allows flexible and contextualised curriculum management, recognising effective autonomy in education is only guaranteed if there is autonomy regarding the curriculum.

Within this context, and after a long process of listening to various stakeholders at national and international level, with a special focus on participating in the OECD Future of Education 2030 project, as well as the Voice of Students initiative, the aim is:

  • To construct a 21st-century curriculum, and
  • To ensure better learning for all, guaranteeing freedom of action and respect for institutional and professional autonomy.

These objectives involve creating the right conditions for Portuguese schools to respond to these new challenges. The change is not based on a desire to innovate, but rather the idea that schools and teachers are key agents of curriculum development, seeking to ensure that important and meaningful learning is achieved for all students, with autonomy and flexibility.

Through  Legislative Order No 10-B/2018, 6 July, the Ministry of Education advocates general guidelines to be applied from the 2018/19 school year. The aim is to consolidate the pedagogical autonomy of schools and teachers, encouraging them to adopt differentiating measures to improve collaborative work, reflect on teaching practices, finding didactic and pedagogical solutions that improve students' learning.

In 2021, legislation was published that created exceptional and temporary measures regarding how different types of schools would organise and operate, including upper secondary education, due to the SARS-COVID 2 coronavirus pandemic. It is worth highlighting the approval of the 21|23 School + Plan (Resolution of the Council of Ministers No 90/2021, 7 July), which consists of an integrated plan for learning recovery in basic and upper secondary education during the 2021/2022 and 2022/2023 school years. 

To improve student learning, so everyone acquires the knowledge, skills and attitudes to achieve the competences set out in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory schooling, the following principles must be observed, among others:

  • Rules and procedures must be defined that allow the formation of educational teams, in order to foster collaborative and interdisciplinary work in the joint planning and implementation of teaching activities, as well as in the evaluation of teaching and learning.
  • Conditions must be created that allow the monitoring of the groups or groups of students throughout each cycle by educational teams.
  • Implementation of specific times for teachers to share and think about pedagogical practices and interconnection between the different levels of education.
  • Preventative action that foresees factors/predictors of school failure and early leaving.
  • Implementation of measures that guarantee an inclusive education that responds to each student’s potential, expectations and needs.
  • Promotion of innovative and diversified teaching and learning methodologies.
  • Close monitoring of students that change cycle and school.
  • Prompt identification of student integration and learning issues.
  • Close monitoring of students in each class that have integration issues, poor relationships with their peers and teachers, and learning difficulties.
  • Matching teacher timetables to the school needs that arise during the academic year, whenever justified.

To prevent school failure and early leaving, schools should organise vocational guidance activities at certain times of the academic year, which are announced to the school community in a timely fashion.

Curricular flexibility and autonomy

Counteracting the main predictors of failure, adopting solutions appropriate to students’ situation and specific needs, the curriculum is seen as a key tool that schools can manage and develop locally, so that all students achieve the competences foreseen in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory education. As such, the main decisions at curricular and pedagogical level should be taken by schools and teachers. Decree-Law No 55/2018, 6 July, granted autonomy to schools, in dialogue with students, families and the community, to engage all in curricular development. 

This decree establishes priorities in terms of contextualising the curriculum to identify the most appropriate options for the educational project. Educational policy is based on three key elements: autonomy, trust and responsibility (autonomy is based on trusting that each school knows its own situation well, assuming the responsibility inherent in providing quality public education).

As part of developing autonomy, Ordinance No 181/2019, 11 June (amended by Ordinance No 306/2021, 17 December), enshrines the possibility of greater curricular flexibility for schools, embodied in management of over 25% of basic curricular matrices of education and training provision, with a view to developing innovation plans for the curriculum, pedagogy and other areas.
The curricular flexibility and autonomy reference documents are as follows:

Organisation of upper secondary education provision

According to Article 7 of Decree-Law No 55/2018, 6 July,  upper secondary education provides students with different pathways that seek to meet their vocational interests, free of stereotypes, and also allows them to complete compulsory schooling, enter the job market and pursue further studies.

Education and training in upper secondary education aims to provide students with diverse training and learning that matches their interests, recognising that everyone has capacity and can choose any educational and training provision available, with a view to continuing studies and/or working.

Education and training provision in upper secondary education:

a) Science-humanities courses

b) Vocational courses

c) Specialised artistic courses

d) Own-school-curriculum courses

and also, in accordance with Article 7(5) of Annex III, Decree-Law No 55/2018, 6 July, dual certification courses, which are designed to ensure that students complete compulsory schooling and ease into working life. They were created and regulated by decree of the members of the Government responsible for the areas of education and vocational training:

e) Education and training courses for young people 

f) Apprenticeship courses.

These courses are described as follows:

a. Science-humanities courses (Ordinance No 226-A/2018, 7 August) provide students with common general and specific training, in line with their interests in further studies in higher education, seeking to cover the skills areas in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory education through the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in the different education components. They are divided into four different courses: science and technology; socio-economic science; languages and humanities; visual arts.

b. Vocational courses (Ordinance No 235-A/2018, 23 August) provide students with initial vocational training and diversified learning, in accordance with their interests, with a view to pursuing studies and/or entering the job market, seeking to cover the skills areas in the Exit Profile of students leaving compulsory education, as well as the vocational profile associated with the respective qualification, through the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in the different training components.

c. Specialised artistic courses - the fields of dance and music are a pathway of basic education pathway (Ordinance No 223-A/2018, 3 August, amended by Ordinance No 65/2022, 1 February) and upper secondary education (Ordinance No 229-A/2018, 14 August) - provide students with general, scientific and artistic training in accordance with their interests in pursuing further studies or entering the job market, seeking to cover the skills areas in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory education through the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in the different education components. These are divided into three artistic areas: visual and audio-visual arts, dance and music.

d. Own-school-curriculum courses grant autonomy to schools to diversify their education and training provision, designing a unique curriculum that facilitates further studies or entering the job market, seeking to cover the skills areas in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory education through the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in the different education components and, in the case of dual certification, to develop the vocational skills associated with each course. This educational and training provision seeks to respond to the challenges posed by the scientific and technological development of the world today, allowing the creation of pathways based on the demands and expectations of the community to which it belongs, thus contributing to development and territorial cohesion.

e. Education and training courses (CEF) (Joint Order No 453/2004, 27 July) are an opportunity to complete compulsory schooling of 12 years through a flexible and tailored course that meets the interests of the students, either to pursue further studies or to obtain specific training to be qualified for working life. These courses seek to cover skills areas in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory education, as well as the vocational profile associated with the respective qualification, through the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in the different training components.

f. Apprenticeship courses (Ordinance No 1497/2008, 19 December) allow for academic and vocational certification, emphasising inclusion in the job market, boosted by a strong training component undertaken in a work context, and the pursuit of higher level studies .

Upper secondary provision also includes other courses, designed for both young people and adults (from the 9th grade, from 16 years old to 29 years old), which can be consulted in Chapter 8 – Adult Education and Training

Types of institutions

Upper secondary education is taught in public, private and cooperative schools, including public and private VET schools. For more information, see types of institutions in Subchapter 6.1.  Organisation of General Upper Secondary Education and in Subchapter 6.4. Organisation of vocational upper secondary education.

Post-secondary non-tertiary education

The 23rd Constitutional Government’s programme prioritises improving post-secondary level training and qualification. Part of this involves flexibility and promoting access to these qualification pathways.

In Portugal, post-secondary non-tertiary education provision can lead to an NQF level 5 qualification, which can be obtained through the following ways:

a) Specialised technological courses (CET)

b) Apprenticeship Courses+

c) Certified modular training (see Chapter 8 – Adult Education and Training)

d) Recognition, validation and certification of competences (see Chapter 8 – Adult Education and Training when the respective Professional RVCC reference frameworks s are available in the CNQ).

Specialised technological courses (CET)

These courses are a type of dual certification training at post-secondary non-tertiary level that confer a qualification based on specialised technical training (Decree-Law No 88/2006, 23 May, amended by Decree-Law No 39/2022, 31 May, together with Ordinance No 206/2022, 19 August, which defines the operating conditions for technological specialisation courses, as well as the model and conditions for issuing the respective certificates and diploma. In the case of specialised technological courses (CET), the Decree-Law and Ordinance must always be considered together, as they have complementary provisions).

For more information, see Subchapter 6.7 and Subchapter 6.9.

Apprenticeship Courses+

These courses are post-secondary dual certification sandwich training, with a strong training in a work context component.

The apprenticeship courses+ are designed for adults between the ages of 18 and 29 (inclusive), who meet a set of requirements.

For more information, see Subchapter 6.7 and Subchapter 6.9.

General objectives

CETs have the following objectives:

  • To promote retraining/reskilling to return to and advance in the job market.
  • To improve professional skills for better professional performance, as well as better adaptation to technological and organisational changes.
  • To consolidate initial training pathways, boosting professional qualification and specialised technical competences.
  • To encourage the continuation of studies to higher education level.

Apprenticeship+ courses have the following objectives:

  • To improve trainee qualification levels to improve employability and (re)integration in the job market, as well as the continuation of studies, hopefully to higher education level.
  • To emphasise training potential in a work context, through the active participation of companies and other employers in the training process, viewing them as true partners.
  • To develop and consolidate quality learning using a sandwich training approach, viewed as the interaction between theoretical and practical training and the contexts in which they take place, with training in a work context undertaken in companies and other employers, increasingly featured throughout the course.
  • To make trainees better prepared for the job market and the real context of work through the practical experience of training in a work context.

Types of institutions

Specialised Technological Courses (CET) may operate in:

- Public and private and cooperative schools.

- Vocational Training Centres on the Institute of Employment and Vocational Training network.

- Technological schools.

- Hospitality and tourism schools belonging to the Instituto do Turismo de Portugal, I. P.

- Other certified training bodies.

- Under the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security, these courses can be hosted by IEFP network centres and the training institutions certified by the Directorate-General for Employment and Labour Relations, which are authorised to teach a STC.

Apprenticeship+ Courses can operate in:

- IEFP's directly and partially managed centres.

- Where training bodies are certified by the Directorate-General for Employment and Labour Relations

- Places where other bodies, due to their legal status and areas of competence, do not require certification as a training body, if their founding documentation includes the possibility of training activity, with the exception of public, private or cooperative schools, including vocational schools covered by Decree-Law No 92/2014, 20 June, in its current wording.

For more information, see Types of institutions in Subchapter 6.7. Organisation of Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education.

Relevant regulatory framework

Ordinance No 206/2022, 19 August, which defines the operational conditions for specialised technology courses, as well as the model and conditions for issuing the respective certificates and diplomas.

Decree Law No 39/2022, 31 May, which amends the specialised technology courses regime.

Ordinance No 65/2022, 1 February, which makes the first amendment to Ordinance No 223-A/2018, 3 August, which regulates basic courses in dance, music and Gregorian chant, introducing the basic drama course for the 2nd and 3rd cycles of basic education.

Ordinance No. 70/2022, 2 February, which regulates apprenticeship courses.

Decree-Law No 55/2018, 6 July, with the Rectification Statement No 29-A/2018, 4 September, and amendment No 70/2021, 3 August, regulate the curricular organisation in force for all upper secondary education grades for the 2020/21 and 2021/2022 school years. In its current wording, this decree defines the curriculum of basic and upper secondary education, the guiding principles of its design, operation and evaluation of learning. It seeks to cover the skills areas in the exit profile of students leaving compulsory education through the knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in the different education components.

Decree-Law No 62/2023, 25 July, amends the rules for adapting the assessment process regarding the legal framework for inclusive education and the rules relating to external assessment of learning.

Decree-Law No 42/2012, 22 February amends the system of final grading in upper secondary education for science-humanities courses in recurrent education for students who wish to continue their studies, without affecting the status of those who only intend to complete their upper secondary education.

Ordinance No 226-A/2018, 7 August, regulates the upper secondary level science-humanities courses (sciences and technologies, socioeconomic sciences, languages and humanities, and visual arts).

Ordinance No 235-A/2018, 23 August, regulates dual certification, upper secondary vocational courses, both academic and vocational.

Ordinance No 229-A/2018, 14 August, with amendments introduced by Declaration of Rectification No 29/2018, 4 September, regulates upper secondary, specialised artistic courses, such as dance, music, singing and Gregorian Chant.

Ordinance No 232-A/2018, 20 August, regulates upper secondary, specialised artistic courses, such as communication design, product design and artistic production, in the area of visual arts, and the audiovisual communication course in the area of audiovisuals.

Ordinance No 782/2009, 23 July regulates the National Qualifications Framework and defines the descriptors for national qualification levels.

Decree-Law No 54/2018, 6 July, which establishes the legal framework for inclusive education (with amendments introduced by Law No 116/2019, 13 September and by Decree-Law No 62/2023, 25 July).

Ordinance No 181/2019, 11 June, with amendments introduced by Ordinance No 306/2021, 17 December, which defines the terms and conditions with which schools can manage over 25% of basic curricular matrices of education and training provision in basic and upper secondary education as part of autonomy and curricular flexibility.

For more information on the main provision of laws relevant to upper secondary education and post-secondary, non-tertiary education, visit the website of the Directorate-General for Education and ANQEP I.P