After living in Spain with my two young children for a year and a half, I’ve noticed some differences in the schools in Spain versus US schools.
I should note that the five differences I describe here have to do with overall experience and not academics. Also, note that my children are four and a half and six, so these differences mainly pertain to preschool and elementary school levels and are based on our personal experience (aided by some quick reading).
Lastly, in both the U.S. and Spain, education is largely controlled by individual regions or states and therefore, there are differences in schools across the country.
These are the broad differences in daily life at a school in Barcelona versus the U.S. in our experience.
1. School Hours
The school day generally starts and ends later in Spain than in the United States. Around us, the school day is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break. Just Landed reports that many Spanish schools go from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break. It also states that some schools skip the lunch break and finish at 2 p.m., more like American schools.
American schools tend to start around 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. and go until 2:30 or 3 p.m. “The reason we have such relatively short school hours and limited days of the year is pure inertia,” explains an article in Business Insider a few years ago. “The summer break and six to six-and-a-half hour day came about in the 19th century to accommodate farmers and urban families who wanted to get out of the heat for the summer in an age before air conditioning.”
The Spanish school day seems to be built for working parents. For many families, one parent drops the kids off in the morning, and the other picks the kids up at 5 p.m., and both get in a full day of work.
Like the U.S., Spain does have a long summer break. In fact, many families here in Barcelona head up into the mountains or to other cooler parts of Europe for much of August. The fact that many apartments in Spain don’t have central air conditioning combined with the much more generous vacation policies in Spanish companies allow families to travel for three or four weeks in August.
2. The Lunch Break
Spanish schools generally have a large break built into the middle of the day, which, at least today, is unheard of in the U.S. Here in our neighborhood in Barcelona, the schools have a two- or two-and-a-half-hour lunch break. Children can either go home to eat, or they can have lunch at school. Some children go home for lunch every day, others a few days a week, and others not at all. It is also not uncommon for children to go eat with a grandparent once or twice a week.
At my children’s school, lunch is served during the first hour, and during the second hour the children play or participate in an optional paid extracurricular activity, such as yoga or theatre.
Spanish school lunches, at least at many schools, are a two-course meal served family style. They are hot cooked lunches and are generally healthy. At many schools, lunch monitors are in charge, while the classroom teachers leave the school. The lunch monitors aren’t just there to make sure no one is throwing food or kicking anyone under the table. They are there to make sure the kids are eating their food! (There was no such thing at my public school cafeteria in the United States.)
In the United States, children do not have the option to leave the school during the school day. They eat in a large (often noisy) cafeteria, where they go through a line to collect their lunch tray or they eat food they brought from home.
3. The Starting Age
In Spain public school starts at age three, compared to five or six in the U.S. It is fairly common for American children to attend a preschool before the official school age, but not all do. About 40 percent of three-year-olds in the U.S. attend preschools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
School is required until the age of 16 in Spain. Then, for the following two years students can attend either vocational training or a secondary school that is a prerequisite for universities. In the United States children are generally only required by law to attend school until age 16, but they are encouraged to continue until 18 to earn their high school diploma.
Also, in Spain the grade levels are broken up by birth year. In the United States, the age rage for each grade level is from September to September. (In our case, that meant our son with a November birthday is just one grade below his sister instead of two, and he went from being one of the older kids in his preschool class in the U.S. to one of the youngest in his class here.)
4. The Class Composition
One of the biggest differences in the elementary school my children go to here and the one they would be in in the United States is the fact that here the students stay with the same class year after year.
Our school here is small with one class per grade and about 20 kids per class. There are a little more than 200 students ranging from one-year-old through sixth grade.Our elementary school in the U.S. has 531 students in grades kindergarten through fourth grade.
In the United States, there are often several classes per grade level, and they are rearranged each year. Here, the same children are together year after year, growing and learning together as a group. I have heard that even at some larger schools here in Spain, it is common for the class to stay together over the years.
My hypothesis, which I’ve also read and heard from others, is that since they children (and the families) are together year after year, there tends to be less bullying and animosity. This isn’t to say all the children get along perfectly all the time, but having grown up together they seem to be relatively close-knit and almost more like siblings.
5. The Level Parental Involvement
For me parental involvement at school is another major difference between schools here in Barcelona versus in the United States. When I had toddlers in preschool for a few hours per day, there were several class parties and events to attend as well as requests for volunteers. I kept hearing that I’d be even busier when the kids got into elementary school. How could I be busier with the kids out of the house more hours of the day? But I heard it countless times.
There seems to be a kind of frenzied and sometimes guilt-driven parental involvement in U.S. schools—among both working and stay-at-home parents. There are constant requests, demands, and forms to fill out—PTO meetings, class parties, calls for parent chaperones on school field trips, requests for donations and teacher gifts, and more.
Here at the start of the school year, I fill out one permission slip that says my children are allowed to go on field trips with the school and one form indicating whether or not I give permission for my child’s photo to be included on the school’s social media pages. The parents in each class arrange a joint gift for the teachers at the end of the year from the entire class. That’s about it.
However, that doesn’t mean parents aren’t involved or that the school keeps them at arm’s length. The teachers and school director are very accessible and willing to talk to parents and answer questions any time.
Also, in our case, the parents in each class arrange birthday parties a few times per year for the children in the class. They take place at a playground near the school. Everyone brings a little food, some drinks for the kids (and some drinks for the adults), and a piñata.
Aside from the parties, on any given day after school, you’ll find several kids from each of my children’s classes at the playground a couple blocks away from the school. On Fridays, it is very common to see about half of my daughter’s class at the playground. And while the kids are playing, the parents get to talk and spend time together too.