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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of general lower secondary education


6.Secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education

6.1Organisation of general lower secondary education

Last update: 1 March 2024

Types of institutions

As reflected in Article 108 of Organic Law 2/2006 on Education (LOE), as amended by the Organic Law 3/2020 (LOMLOE), the network of schools providing compulsory secondary education consists on:

  • institutions fully or partially supported by public funds:
    • public schools;
    • publicly funded private schools;
  • private schools, with exclusively private sources of funding.

Public schools, referred to as “institutos” (secondary school) may also provide bachillerato studies (Spanish Baccalaureate) and vocational training. Private schools, whether publicly funded or not, may adopt any name, except those corresponding to public institutions or those which may be misleading, and they usually offer other types of education as well.

Schools teach the four years of compulsory secondary education, and have at least one class unit per year.

All schools in the state, regardless of ownership and source of funding, must meet a series of minimum requirements regarding the academic qualifications of teachers, pupil-teacher ratios, teaching and sports facilities, and the number of school places. These requirements are set out in title IV of Royal Decree 132/2010 and Articles 87.2 and 157.1.a of the LOE, as amended by LOMLOE regarding the numerical student-teacher ratio per unit.

In the 2021/22 school year, there were 7511 schools in the whole country providing Compulsory Secondary Education (ESO), of which 4270 were public schools, 2764 publicly funded private schools, and 477 private schools. Source: Statistics from the Ministry of Education, Vocational Training and Sports (MEFD) on the number of institutions that provide each type of education.

The number of schools varies substantially from one autonomous community to another.

Geographical accessibility

It is the responsibility of the State to promote actions that allow for the choice of any educational option desired, regardless of the place of residence, as long as the established academic requirements are met.

Along that same line, the education authorities, based on the principle of collaboration, must facilitate access both to education with a limited offer and to institutions in neighbouring areas for students who have no such educational offer in institutions close to or in their own autonomous community. This circumstance shall be taken into account in the student admission processes.

Furthermore and once again based on the principle of collaboration, the education authorities must facilitate access to their facilities with educational value and the use of their resources by students and teachers from other autonomous communities.

At the same time, special attention must be paid to schools in rural areas, considering the peculiarities of their educational environment and the need to encourage students from rural areas to remain in the education system beyond basic education. To this end, the specific nature of rural schools should be taken into account, providing them with the necessary means and organisational systems to meet their particular needs and guarantee equal opportunities. In those rural areas where it is considered advisable, schooling can be provided in a municipality close to the student's place of residence in order to guarantee the quality of education.

In order to achieve all of the above, in those cases in which schooling is required in schools further away from the place of residence (due to the absence of closer institutions), the existence of residences (boarding schools) is available. They allows pupils to return home at weekends. This service is provided free of charge in these cases, together with transport and meal services.

The aspects to be considered when planning educational provision in a specific geographical area are, among others:

  • urban areas:
    • the birth rate;
    • the increase in the number of foreign pupils;
    • the growth of population in emerging areas;
  • rural areas:
    • the difficult access to geographical areas;
    • birth and death rates;
    • the ageing of the population;
    • the number of seasonal workers.

In addition, territorial cooperation programmes applicable throughout the country take into account as criteria for the territorial distribution of economic resources the singularity of these programmes in terms of favouring equal opportunities. The following aspects are particularly valued:

  • the volume of students enrolled in relation to the objectives of the programme in public and publicly funded private schools;
  • socially disadvantaged rural or urban areas;
  • depopulation;
  • demographic dispersion.

Admission requirements and choice of school

Compulsory secondary education (ESO), together with primary education and basic training cycles, forms part of basic education, which is compulsory and free of charge.

The characteristics of access to compulsory secondary education are the following:

  • pupils successfully completing primary education are automatically eligible for direct access;
  • every publicly funded primary school –in the case of publicly funded private schools, only if the owners so desire- is assigned to a secondary school, so that its students may gain access to the secondary school without a new admission process;
  • those students coming from the assigned primary school have priority to enrol in the secondary school when there are not enough places;
  • parents or legal tutors are entitled to choose the education centre that they wish for their children, whether it is public or private;
  • the only requisite for accessing schooling is the year of birth: the calendar year in which they reach the age of 12; unless the child has spent more than one academic year in primary education, in which case it is the year in which the child reaches the age of 13;
  • private schools have autonomy for establishing their own admission procedures.

The education authorities are responsible for regulating the admission of students to public and publicly funded private schools. This regulation must ensure the following aspects:

  1. the right to education;
  2. equal access;
  3. freedom of choice of centre by the families or the person exercising legal guardianship.

This regulation must provide for the necessary measures to avoid segregation of pupils due to socio-economic or other reasons. In all cases, an adequate and balanced distribution of students with specific educational support needs among schools must be observed.

Only when there are not enough places to meet the demand do public schools and publicly funded private schools apply a series of priority admission criteria, which are common and applicable throughout the country, without any of them being exclusive in nature. They are the following:

  • having siblings enrolled in the school or parents or legal guardians working at the school;
  • closeness of the school to the parents or legal guardians' home or to their workplace;
  • per capita income of the family unit;
  • legal status of large family, of pupils born from multiple births, or of single-parent family;
  • student's family placement situation;
  • disability of the pupil or of either of his/her parents or siblings;
  • condition of gender violence or terrorism victim;
  • in the case of students from abroad who are within compulsory schooling age groups, the incorporation into any of the grades that make up compulsory secondary education is carried out according to their circumstances, knowledge, age and academic history, so that they can successfully continue their education.

None of these criteria shall be exclusive and may not account for more than 30% of the total maximum score, except for the distance to the family home, which may exceed this limit.

Under no circumstances shall there be discrimination on the grounds of birth, racial or ethnic origin, sex, religion, opinion, disability, age, illness, sexual orientation or gender identity or any other personal or social condition or circumstance.

Still, if there are not enough school places, the following are given priority in the school catchment area corresponding to either of the parents or legal guardians’ place of residence or employment:

  • students coming from pre-primary schools that are attached;
  • students whose schooling is caused by the change of residence of the family unit due to forced mobility of either parent, a disability of any of the family members, or as a result of acts of gender-based violence.

Admission is the responsibility of the education authorities of each autonomous community. To this end, they may constitute commissions or bodies of admission that guarantee and must establish the corresponding ways for the families to complain against the decisions taken in these procedures:

  • the school board is in charge of admission in public schools, while in publicly funded private schools the person in charge is also the owner;
  • private schools have autonomy for establishing their own admission procedures.

Public and publicly funded private schools are obliged to keep students in school until they turn 16, unless parents request a change of school or one of the situations laid down in the current legislation on students’ rights and duties applies.

Private schools have autonomy for establishing their own admission procedures.

Age levels and grouping of pupils

Compulsory secondary education (ESO) is usually completed between the ages of 12 and 16. However, exceptionally, whenever the teaching team considers that this measure favours the acquisition of the competences established at this stage, students will have the right to remain in the ordinary system until they reach the age of 18 (during the year in which the school year ends).

This stage comprises four school years. Although groups are created according to the year of birth, there might be students with several years of difference in age in the same group, as there might be students repeating the year. However, the ordinary distribution of students by age and school year is as follows:

  • first year of ESO: 12-13 years old (ISCED 2);
  • second year of ESO: 13-14 years old (ISCED 2);
  • third year of ESO: 14-15 years old (ISCED 2);
  • fourth year of ESO: 15-16 years old (ISCED 3).

Repeating a year is characterised by the following:

  • it is possible to remain in the same year only once;
  • repetition is only allowed a maximum of two times throughout compulsory education (which also includes primary education);
  • regardless of whether the maximum number of permanence periods has been used up, exceptionally, students may remain in the fourth year of ESO for one more year, if the teaching team considers that this measure favours the acquisition of the competences established for the stage. In that case, the age limit for permanence is extended to the age of 19, so that students are not forced to leave basic education without having the possibility of achieving a qualification.

A form teacher is assigned to each group, but specialist teachers are responsible for teaching the different subjects. These specialist teachers may have the same group of students during the following years. In addition, in the first years of the stage, according to the conditions established by each education administration, teachers with the appropriate qualifications may teach more than one subject to the same group.

With regard to the numerical teacher/student ratio per unit, the following aspects should be mentioned:

  • it is regulated in the LOE, which establishes a maximum of 30 students per classroom;
  • the education authorities may authorise an increase of up to ten per cent in the maximum number of students per classroom in public and publicly funded private schools in the same schooling area for various reasons:
    • address immediate schooling needs of late starters;
    • needs arising from the transfer of the family unit during an extraordinary schooling period, either due to forced mobility of either parent or legal guardian, or as a result of the initiation of a family placement measure for the person attending school.

Article 22.4 of the LOE establishes that the education authorities are responsible for regulating the measures that allow schools to organise teaching flexibly, which may give rise to different types of student grouping. These measures include the following:

  • curricular adaptations;
  • the integration of subjects into areas;
  • flexible grouping;
  • splitting groups of students;
  • the offer of optional subjects;
  • remedial programmes and individual support measures for students with specific educational support needs.

Organisation of the school year

Respecting the minimum requirements established by law for the whole of the State (a minimum of 175 school days), the education authorities are responsible for establishing the annual school calendar in their respective administrative areas.

Activity in schools starts on September 1st and ends at least on June 30th. For students the teaching activity begins during the month of September and ends at the end of June. The education authorities in each autonomous community set the exact dates. The teaching activity is organised taking into account the Christmas, Easter and summer holidays, giving rise to terms of varying length. However, some autonomous communities have also tried to divide the year in two-month periods.

School holidays for students are spread out over the whole year in the following manner:

  • approximately eleven weeks of summer holidays;
  • about fifteen days at Christmas;
  • between eight and eleven days in late March or early April, corresponding to Easter;
  • between two and three days for Carnival, depending on each autonomous community.
  • around twelve days declared as public holidays or non-school days by the Ministry of Education, Vocational Training and Sports (MEFD) or the local/regional authorities.

This distribution of holidays, public holidays and non-school days can vary significantly from one autonomous community to another.

During the summer holidays, educational institutions may remain open until the end of July for administrative purposes. Depending on the organisation of each educational centre, the same may occur on non-holiday days during the Christmas and Easter breaks.

Organisation of the school day and week

Schools establish the weekly and daily timetable, respecting the minimum number of teaching days established by law and in the guidelines on school day set by each autonomous community.

The school general timetable, in the school development plan, must specify the following aspects:

  • school opening time and conditions;
  • teaching hours;
  • availability of school services and facilities out of school hours.

The weekly timetable is organised as follows:

  • is organized from Monday to Friday, except holidays, according to the school calendar;
  • in general, it comprises 30 to 32 lessons lasting 55 minutes each, i.e., 6 or 7 daily lessons.

During the school day, there is a 30-40 minute break divided into two periods, either after every two or three lessons or as a single period by mid-morning.

The weekly and daily timetable, as proposed by the management team, must be approved by the school council and ratified by the education administration. If it does not include the scheduled teaching activities, the relevant education authority returns it to the school so that it can be revised and corrected.

Beyond the daily school schedule, remedial courses and extracurricular activities related to educational subjects of interest are often offered: languages, ICT, sports, fine arts, reading and writing, directed study activities, etc. These services are available for families (upon payment, in most cases) and are voluntary for pupils.