International or Catalan schools: hard choice for parents explained

Barcelona hosts event to help multinational families choose the right school for their children, with pre-registration stage underway

Image of the round table held in Barcelona on March 10 to tackle the different schooling options for international families (by Xavier Alsinet)
Image of the round table held in Barcelona on March 10 to tackle the different schooling options for international families (by Xavier Alsinet) / Angus Clelland

Angus Clelland | Barcelona

March 13, 2022 11:38 AM

Pre-registration for places at Catalan schools to start in September 2022 is now open until March 21, with the official enrolment stage to take place between June 21 and 29, during which students receive confirmation of their place at school.

International families are now faced with the decision of how they want to school their 40,000 children here in Catalonia, with a wide range of options available to them.

The main decision for parents is whether to send their kids to a local Catalan school, or an international school. Here's a useful guide made by the Barcelona local council in early 2020 with all details

At an event organized this week by the capital’s local council, with the collaboration of the Barcelona Education Consortium, the Catalan government’s education department, and the Barcelona International Schools Association (BISA), these options were outlined to the parents in attendance.

The event’s talk included a round table panel featuring Oriol Pallarès and Esteve Juanola, assistant head inspectors at the Government of Catalonia's Department of Education, as well as BISA president Julie Harris, and moderated by Catalan News deputy editor Guifré Jordan.

The Catalan system

As explained in the session, the Catalan school system is divided into four sections based on age group.

The youngest is pre-school, which students attend between the ages of three and six. Juanola pointed out that although education is compulsory from 6 to 16, “99% of kids under six are already enrolled” in Catalan pre-school level.

From 6 to 12 children attend primary school, before moving to secondary education until they turn 16.

At this point, students either take part in ‘Batxillerat’ pre-university courses or professional training courses (CGFM and CFGS).

Catalan schools are also divided into public, private and ‘concertades’. Public schools are free and funded publicly, whereas private institutions are paid for. In between these sit the ‘concertades’ schools which are private schools that are partially financed publicly, thus they are a cheaper option to the fully private centres.

International paths within the Catalan system

Pallarès and Juanola highlighted that within the Catalan schools there are plenty of international paths to take, as some give students the opportunity to International Baccalaureate, “together with the high school diploma”, said Pallarès.

The offer also includes the Diploma Dual, mixing the Catalan ‘Batxillerat’ and the American high school, or the Batxibac programme, in which a third of high school studies are in French.

Students then take the French final stage exam, thus leaving school with two diplomas.

Furthermore, in recent years Catalan schools have been providing, according to Esteve Juanola, an “increasing number of educational resources in English”, as the majority of state and private schools offer “integrated learning programmes”, which consist of some subjects (such as maths or social sciences) in addition to language classes, held in a foreign language.

While the possibility of going to a local school may seem daunting to newcomers in Catalonia, Pallarès highlighted that “around 40,000 students from other countries are currently enrolled in the Catalan school system”, so “teachers and principals are used to welcoming students from anywhere in the world”.

International schools outside Catalan system

Another potential destination for children of international families is one of the international schools in Catalonia, including the 12 schools that make up BISA.

The aim of the association is for the schools to be able to share experiences and resources, plan projects together, collaborate with local authorities and even host events, such as sports tournaments, talent shows, debating competitions and their annual international university fair.

Some of the nationalities represented by the member schools include the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States.

Although these schools do offer students the opportunity to take exams from their respective country, most are jointly accredited by international educational authorities or the international baccalaureate.

Speaking with Catalan News, James Petrie, Headmaster at the British School of Barcelona’s campus in Castelldefels, just down the coast from Barcelona, said that after completing the English GCSEs when they are 16, students then have the choice to “either do the International Baccalaureate or the A-Levels, and they can also do the 'pruebas específicas' which will allow them to go to top-quality Spanish or Catalan universities as well”.

Be BISA members or not, there are over 40 international schools in the Barcelona area including American School of Barcelona, Aula Escola Europea, Benjamin Franklin International School, École Française Ferdinand de Lesseps, Emilio Sánchez American School, Hamelin-Laie International School, Highlands School Barcelona, Kensington School, Lycée Français de Barcelone, Lycée Français de Gavà Bon Soleil, Oak House School, Princess Margaret School, St. Peter’s School Barcelona, The British College of Gavà, The British School of Barcelona, and the International School of Catalunya.

Integration with Catalonia

One question surrounding the school experience in Barcelona for internationals is how easily students would be able to participate in the Catalan environment outside the school gates.

Julie Harris reassured that all schools, be they member of the BISA or part of the main Catalan schooling system, work towards the same “goals”, and that although the primary language of many of the BISA schools is not Catalan or Spanish, many offer teaching from very early on, to allow newcomers to the languages better integrate into the world around them.

Maria Andrea, Head of Admissions at the British School of Gavà, told Catalan News that although English is the main language of the school, “we teach Spanish from 4 years old and we teach Catalan from 6 years old, and we also teach French, so languages are a very important aspect for us.”

In the Catalan system, schools have a sort of “newcomer’s classroom” which offers extra hours of language learning and reinforcement to help students who are new to the territory to assimilate more easily into Catalan culture and society. Parallès added that full integration may take up to two years, but naturally depends on the student’s country of origin. If needed, monitoring beyond the second year is also possible.

Prices and scholarships

Harris also outlined the question of prices of the BISA schools, saying that although their 12 member schools are classed as private, and therefore there are cheaper options, their prices “vary”. 

In terms of grants, she added that unfortunately “there are limited opportunities for scholarships”.

Within the Catalan system, prices also vary, however this primarily is due to the difference between the free state schools, the paid-for private schools and the cheaper subsidized schools.

The process outlined

Cristina Iglesia, Education Advisor for the Barcelona Education Consortium then spoke to clarify the process to enrol in these schools, as well as the key deadlines coming up.

The registration procedure is divided into two “pre-enrolment” and “enrolment” stages. The first of these is essential for the child to be considered for a place, and the second is the confirmation.

Parents must make a decision on the school and apply to said school by March 21. These applications are considered between April and June, and enrolment takes place in June, ready to start in September.

Iglesia explained the enrolment ‘points system’ which considers a number of factors to determine your possibility of being offered a place.

These criteria range from whether you have a sibling at the school - the circumstance yielding the most points - to your proximity to the school, to any disabilities the child or parent may have.

If there are lots of children with the same points, there is a draw to assign places within the list. This takes place on May 9.

The deadline for pre-registration is March 21, with dates for pre-university 'Batxillerat' courses being April 2.

For more information visit the Barcelona Education Consortium and Department of Education websites.