Policy Description

Educational Policies: Spain (2014)


The Public Instruction Act of 1857 (which came to be known as the Moyano Act, BOE-A-1857-9551) was the first comprehensive regulation of the Spanish educational system. It introduced obligatory schooling for children between the ages of six and nine, tried to reduce the Catholic Church’s influence on schools, and provided a legal framework for private education. From 1857 to 1970 the duration of compulsory education changed several times, with various laws either extending or reducing the number of years. In 1970, the General Law of Education (BOE-A-1970-852) established mandatory general basic education (EGB) for children between the ages of six and 13, and introduced high school (Bachillerato) for older children preparing for university, as well as vocational training. Because the educational sector remained under-funded, the reform did not apply to all sectors of society. Currently, education is compulsory for 10 years for children ages 6-16 (see compulsory education).

Since the re-establishment of democratic rule in 1977, educational policy has been directly regulated under article 27 of the Spanish constitution (1978), which asserts the basic right to a free education. However, the distribution of powers between the central state and the Autonomous Communities is not directly defined in the constitution. Indeed, according to article 149.3 most powers in the field of education can eventually be transferred to the Autonomous Communities, but they can only legislate on those issues which the framework legislation has left open, or on which the state has not yet passed framework laws, or could find no reason for doing so. Paradoxically, the Autonomous Communities have a wide range of responsibilities in the area of education: namely, the administrative tenure of educational institutions; the founding, the construction, and the management of educational institutions; the supervision of teachers and other staff; and the organisation of daily life in schools. 

However, the rights of the Autonomous Communities are changing. According to article 6a of the Organic Law for Quality Improvement of Education (aka LOMCE), the central government is responsible for “the design of the core curriculum in relation to the objectives, skills, content, evaluation criteria, standards and measurable learning outcomes”; while the Autonomous Communities are responsible for 1) complementing the contents of the block core subjects, and 2) establishing the contents of the subjects considered important by a specific Autonomous Community.

The municipal and local governments have very few opportunities to influence education policy: education laws simply recognise the ability of local bodies to assist the state and the Autonomous Communities in the field of education. Nevertheless, the municipalities are responsible for obtaining the land for building schools, as well as for the conservation, the maintenance, and the security of the state kindergartens and primary schools; and for the enforcement of compulsory education laws, if necessary through social services or the local police. 

The Spanish state education sector is financed with public funds through public educational institutions. They also fund a portion of the costs (the salaries of teachers) of “state-sanctioned”  private schools, most of which are operated by the Catholic Church. Finally, there are private schools at all levels of education which are owned by private individuals or legal entities. Parents who send their children to these schools must pay fees that completely cover the educational costs. Most of these schools are also run by religious orders, and include single-sex schools.

Organisation of the educational system

The Spanish education system is relatively decentralised. The Ministry of Education of the central government designs the legal framework regulating the principles, the objectives, and the organisation of the different school levels, as well as some of the contents and subjects studied. Departments in the regions develop and manage their educational systems based on these guidelines. In fact, areas of exclusive legislation from these departments are rare in Spain. 

The current system for schools below the level of higher education is organised into four levels: pre-primary school, primary school, compulsory secondary education, and post-compulsory education. Pre-primary education is still voluntary and consists of two levels: pre-school for children ages 0-3 years and pre-primary school for children ages 3-6 years (pre-primary school is free). Primary education (ages 6-12) and compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, aka ESO) for students at the lower secondary level (ages 12-16) are compulsory and free in state schools. The main forms of free post-compulsory education are two years of upper secondary academic education (Bachillerato) and vocational training (Formación Profesional) programmes at either the beginning or the intermediate levels, the duration of which vary between one and a half or two years. Tertiary education includes university education and advanced vocational training. 

In 1990, the Law of General Ordering of the Educational System (LOGSE, BOE-A-1990-24172) represented a turning point in the regulation of educational services and childcare. It introduced “infant education” composed of two voluntary cycles. The first cycle for children ages 0-2was provided through agreements with municipalities, other public administrative bodies, and private non-profit entities. The second cycle for children ages 3-5 was provided by schools. In 2002, the Organic Law on Quality in Education (LOCE, BOE-A-2002-25037) continued to define infant education as voluntary and free, consisting of a cycle of three academic years for children ages 3-6, but which was based on attendance by children ages 0-3. Under the Organic Law of Education (LOE,BOE-A-2006-7899) of 2006, which replaced the two aforementioned laws, infant education was defined as a single stage from birth to age five (Jimenez, 2010). In practice, the Royal Decree-Law on the Curriculum of the Second Cycle of Infant Education (1630/2006) of 2006 called for the provision of cost-free state school programmes for children ages 3-5 (though attendance was not made compulsory). These cycles offer educational services within the framework of the complete school day (mornings from 9 am to 12:30 pm, and afternoons from 3 pm to 4:30 pm) in schools with other educational levels (usually the primary level for children ages 6-12). They are offered by the state in either state schools or through a grant-assisted scheme (infant education centre). Other schools can also be made available by the private sector, though they are controlled by the authorities responsible for education, including the Ministry of Education and the Department of Education of the Autonomous Community governments. We should note that according to official registers, enrolment rates for three-, four-, and five-year-olds are among the highest in the European Union; thus, schooling for children in this age range (the second cycle of infant education) is almost universal.

Compulsory education

The Law on the General Ordering of the Education System (BOE-A-1990-24172), aka LOGSE, established in 1990 the main curricular changes that are still in place today. First, it extended compulsory education up to 16 years of age, which is also the minimum age for entering the labour market. Compulsory education is cost-free in state and state-sanctioned schools, and encompasses a period of 10 years for children ages 6-16. Pre-primary education (ages 0-6) is still voluntary. However, since 2006 (Royal Decree-Law on the Curriculum of the Second Cycle of Infant Education, 1630/2006) the second level of pre-school (ages 3-6) has been cost-free, and the state is supposed to offer the necessary number of pre-school places. Primary education (ages 6-12) and compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, aka ESO) for students at the lower secondary level (ages 12-16) are compulsory and free in state schools. Further regulations implemented curricular changes made by alternating conservative and socialist party governments, but did not affect compulsory education, with the exception of the latest reform undertaken in 2013. The Organic Law for Quality Improvement of Education (BOE-A-2013-12886), known as the ley Wert, for the name of the minister of education) gave students the option of devoting their last year of compulsory education (at age 16) to vocational training, instead of following the regular pathway of compulsory secondary education (ESO).



Pau Miret-Gamundi
Centre for Demographic Studies (CED)

Rocío Treviño
Centre for Demographic Studies (CED)

Pilar Zueras
Centre for Demographic Studies (CED)

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2014.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2014): Policy: "Educational Policies: Spain" (Information provided by Pau Miret-Gamundi, Rocío Treviño & Pilar Zueras). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].