School days: The Spanish vocab parents need to face ‘la vuelta al cole’

The start of the school year is here but are you ready to be hit by concepts and words particular to Spanish school life? Lisa Sadlier provides the survival guide for parents with kids in school in Spain.

School days: The Spanish vocab parents need to face 'la vuelta al cole'
Photos: AFP

This year the “vuelta al cole” (back to school in Spain) will be very different, as precautionary measures are being put in place in a bid to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

Some children will be obliged to wear a face mask (la mascarilla): inside the classroom (el aula), in common areas (zonas comunes) and in the playground (el patio).

Hand gel (gel de manos) will be used frequently as well as soap and water (jabón y agua) for regular hand washing (lavarse las manos con frecuencia).

There will be arrows (flechas) on the floor to guide children around the school and in an attempt to maintain social distancing (mantener la distancia social).

Older pupils will work in bubbles (burbujas) to reduce the number of people they have contact with.

If all goes to plan, students will continue to attend classes (educación presencial), in some cases there will be a mixture of physical and online classes (una combinación de educación presencial y a distancia).

The Spanish school system can seem complicated if you do not understand the language.

It doesn’t need to be. In this article Lisa Sadlier, mother of two and a relocation expert based in southern Spain, provides a simple guide to the Spanish education system and provides all the essential vocabulary you need.

READ ALSO:  Back to school in Spain: When do classes resume in the different regions?

An Introduction to the Spanish State School System

State Schools in Spain: The Spanish Education System – (for ages 3 to 16) 

Every village and town in Spain, of any size, will have a primary school. The schools may vary considerably in size and sophistication, but they are known to provide a caring and friendly environment for small children. Most will take children in the year that they turn three.

Some state schools in certain areas of Spain only teach in the official language of the given region, as opposed to in Spanish. So, in Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia or the Basque country subjects are taught in respectively Catalan, Gallego, Valencian or Basque.

This is not always the case but is something to investigate carefully, as it will mean that your child will be taught in the regional dialect before learning Spanish. That said, most children master both the local language and Castellano (Spanish) as part of their general schooling.

Exposing children to several languages at an early age can be very beneficial.

The initial State School system is split into:

• Pre-school (Educación Infantil) for ages 3 to 6 years

• Primary School (Colegio): First Cycle for ages 6 to 8 years, and Second Cycle for ages 8 to 10 years.

Pre-school in Spain (Educación Infantil)

This is a non compulsory option available for children aged 3 to 6 years. Children enter pre-school in the autumn of the year in which they turn 3 years old, hence why pre-school classes are often referred to as the class of: 3 años, 4 años and 5 años.

Although not obligatory, pre-school is considered an integral part of a child ́s education. Even though there are no rigid targets, the children are introduced to subject matters that they go on to study in more detail in Primary School, they learn to interact with others and learn to adapt to routines. This is also the age at which children subconsciously absorb new language.

Primary School (Colegio) – ages 6 to 12 years

In the calendar year a child turns six, the obligatory educational phase begins.

The children study subjects such as Spanish language (Lengua), mathematics (mates), nature and environment (conocimiento del medio), religion (based on your choice), English language (inglés), music (música) and physical education(educación física). 

There are tests (controles) every few months. Failure to pass these tests throughout the year may result in your child having to repeat the year.

The following items are usually required at the start of each school year in state run  primary schools. The school will provide you with a list. If you have a local stationary shop, it is a good idea to hand the list over to them and they will prepare all the materials for you. But if you fancy touring the shops, these words will help you …

Backpack – la mochila 

Pencil case – el portalápiz / el estuche

Diary – la agenda

Pen – el bolígrafo (boli)

Pencil – el lapíz

Pencil sharpener – el sacapuntas

Felt tip pens – los rotuladores

Crayons – las ceras

Paper – el papel 

Sheet of A4 – hoja A4

Notebook – el cuaderno

Text Book – el libro

Reading book – el libro de lectura

Ruler – la regla

Rubber – la goma

Scissors – las tijeras

Glue – el pegamento 

Tape – la cinta adhesiva 

Card – la cartulina 

Tissues – pañuelos

Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (ESO) : State secondary schools (ages 12 to 16 years) Bachillerato (ages 16 to 19 years)

This secondary stage of education is compulsory and also free.

It comprises of 4 courses divided into 2 cycles of 2 years each. The first cycle is for pupils from 12 to 14 years and the second from 14 to 16 years.

On successfully completing this education stage, pupils are awarded the certificate of Secondary Education Graduate giving access to Bachillerato and medium-grade training cycles in Spanish schools.

All towns and cities have secondary schools which are generally known as Institutos.

Like primary schools, some secondary schools teach subjects in the regional dialect rather than in Spanish.

Entry to a secondary school also depends upon the catchment area in which you live.

(Not all schools depend on a catchment area, living in the same municipality as the school gives you more points on the points system they use to award places, but they also take into account if you work in the same town as the school. So you can still apply to a school in another area.)

At the age of 16 a child should attain a Certificate of Completion of Secondary Education (Título de Graduado en Educación Secundaria) if they have successfully passed their examinations (examen or control). If they have not been successful then they will leave school with a Certificado de Escolarización. 

If a child has achieved their Titulo de Graduado en Educación Secundaria then they can decide to:

• Leave school

• Continue their education by studying for the Bachillerato (essential for university)

• Continue to attend their school by taking a vocational course (Ciclo Formativo)

Here are some useful words to make the “vuelta al cole 2020” ( back to school 2020) more understandable:

School – la escuela / el colegio / el instituto (secondary)

Classroom – el aula

Dining hall – el comedor

Library – la biblioteca

The playground – el patio

Sports hall – el gimnasio

Teacher – el profesor/ la profesora, or el profe (masculin) la seño (feminine)

Teaching assistant – el ayudante

Student – el alumno / la alumna

Headmaster – el director / la directora

Parents meeting – reunion de padres

PTA ( parent – teacher association) – el AMP (asociación de madres y padres de alumnos) 


Desk – la mesa

Chair – la silla 

Blackboard – la pizarra


Lesson – la clase

Support lessons- los clases de apoyo/refuerzo

Morning club – el aula matinal

After school activities – las actividades extraescolares

Homework – los deberes

Essay – la redacción

Story – el cuento

Test – el control

Exam – el examen


School subject – la asignatura

Spanish – el castellano or Lenga Castellana y Literatura

History – la historia

Mathematics – las matemáticas / el mates

Science – la ciencia

Biology – la biología

Chemistry – la química

Physics – la física

Computer science – la informática

Art – el arte

Religion – la religión


At the end of the term you will receive the grades “las notas” for each subject (asignatura):


Excellent – Sobresaliente (SB)

Very Good – Notable (N)

Satisfactory – Aprobado (A)

Fail – Suspenso (S)


Lisa Sadleir is a mum to 2 bilingual children. She works as a relocation consultant and property finder in southern Spain.  For more information about moving to Spain, the school system in Spain and how to plan your relocation, visit her website HERE. 

For a fun way to learn Spanish with your children, check out her family language project 


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


New rules and laws: Everything that changes in Spain in July 2021

As the month of July kicks off in Spain, we take a close look at all the important changes that come with it, from vaccines to entry requirements, new VAT charges, car devices and more.

New rules and laws: Everything that changes in Spain in July 2021
Photos: Help Flash/AFP

Delta variant expected to become dominant in Spain 

Spanish researchers and public health officials believe the Delta variant of coronavirus, first identified in India, will become the dominant Covid-19 strain in Spain over the course of July.

On June 24th, the Delta variant accounted for four percent of the cases detected in Spain, three points more than the previous week.

In Catalonia, at least 20 percent of new cases are due to the Delta variant, the region’s health official Josep Maria Argimon told reporters at a press conference on June 17th, adding that it would be “predominant” in two to four weeks.

The Health Ministry has so far only officially recorded 62 cases of the Delta variant in Spain, but several regions have reported many more cases than this. Galicia has reported 25 Delta variant infections, while Castilla y León are investigating 83 possible cases. 

The variant has also been found in Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, the Valencian Community, Extremadura, Murcia, Navarra, La Rioja, Ceuta and Melilla.

READ MORE: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Spain?

Vaccines for thirty-somethings

In July, Spain’s vaccination campaign will focus largely on getting people in the 30 to 39 age group their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Many Spanish regions have already started inoculating those aged 35 to 39 towards the end of June, whilst Madrid has decided it will start allowing thirty somethings to book their vaccine appointments in July.

Administering second doses to those in their forties, fifties and sixties will also be a priority, especially for the latter group as only around 30 percent of the 60 to 69 age group have completed their vaccination treatment (roughly half that of people in their fifties). 

That’s in large part because the AstraZeneca vaccine has been reserved for this group and delivery delays and side-effect investigations have hampered its distribution. As a result, Spain’s Health Ministry has brought forward their second dose by two weeks. 

As of June 29th, 16 million people (35 percent of the population) have received their full vaccination treatment and more than half of the population (52 percent, 24.7 million people) have at least one dose.

To read all the latest vaccine news from Spain, visit The Local Spain’s Covid-19 section

Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

New travel entry requirements 

July 1st marks the start of the requirement for British travellers to Spain to show proof of full vaccination or a negative PCR test.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made the announcement on Monday June 28th with regards only to the Balearic Islands, but it has been widely reported that the requirement will apply to travel to all Spanish regions, to be confirmed in an official government bulletin on Tuesday. 

Conversely, Spain added the United States to the list of third countries that are exempt from presenting negative tests or vaccination certificates, meaning American travellers will able to visit Spain more easily during the month of July. 

To read all the latest travel news and information relating to Spain, visit The Local’s travel section

EU digital Covid pass launches

Still on the topic of travel, this digital ‘travel pass’ should make things a little easier if you’re venturing out of the country. 

The EU’s Digital Covid Certificate, as it’s officially known, launches across the bloc on July 1st, although Spain’s regions have made it available to their residents in June. 

In theory, people travelling from Spain to another EU/EEA country will be able to use their vaccination, testing or recovery certificates to get a QR code which allows for quicker and hassle-free travel in Europe. 


How to get a Digital Covid Certificate for travel from Spain to the EU

New VAT rules for imported goods

Imported goods with a value of €22 or less used to be exempt from tax, but this condition will be scrapped on July 1st across the EU. 

This means all goods arriving into Spain and other EU countries from non-EU countries will be subject to VAT, regardless of their value.

This EU-wide regulation will particularly affect businesses that import goods from outside of the bloc and people who shop online on international websites such as China’s AliExpress. 

If the goods cost more than €150 (not including transport, insurance and handling charges) you will also have to pay customs duty.

If businesses don’t register with the The Import One-Stop Shop (IOSS), the VAT will be paid by the customer when importing the goods into the EU. 

Postal or courier companies may charge the customer an additional clearance fee to collect this VAT and carry out the necessary procedures when importing the goods.

New device for cars in Spain

Back in January we reported how the warning triangles drivers in Spain have to carry in their cars in case of a breakdown are being phased out and replaced with these new emergency lights.

As of July 1st, drivers in Spain can use these DGT-approved V-16 emergency lights (luces de emergencia) instead of the warning triangles, although it won’t be obligatory to do so until 2026. 

Photo: Osram

VAT drop for electricity

The Spanish government’s bill to reduce the VAT on electricity from 21 to 10 percent in light of opposition to historically high rates comes into effect on July 1st.  

Last month we also reported how Spain’s main electricity access rates, the regulation costs of electricity which customers pay for, will no longer be frozen as they have been since 2018. 

The changes to the electricity rates means it has become more expensive to use electricity in the first part of the day from 10am – 2pm and in the evenings from 6pm – 10pm from Monday to Friday. The average times are between 8am – 10am, 2pm – 6pm and 10pm – midnight. 

READ ALSO: Spain’s new electricity rates for 2021 -the tricks to help you save up to €300 a year

July kicks off with a heatwave 

As is customary during the summer, July will bring suffocating heat to mainland Spain, with the mercury expected to hit 35 C in many areas. 

It hasn’t been a particularly scorching month of June in Spain but July is forecast to start with temperatures between 5 and 10 degrees higher than normal from Friday, the first heatwave of the year. 

That means that in parts of Andalusia and Murcia the temperature in the first weekend of July could be above 40 C. 

Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

Ten single-use plastics officially banned

As of July 3rd, changes to the Packaging Act will come into force. 

Manufacturers will not be allowed to produce food and beverage containers made of Styrofoam from July. Furthermore cutlery, cosmetic cotton swabs, balloon sticks, stirrers, plates, bowls and drinking straws will also no longer be made from plastic.

If retailers and restaurants have remaining stocks, they can continue to hand them out so that they do not end up unused in the rubbish bin.

According to the EU Commission, the products prohibited under the law represent 70 percent of the waste that pours into oceans, posing a threat to wildlife and fisheries.

Money for staycations 

Twelve autonomous communities in Spain are offering their residents – and in some cases people from other parts of Spain-  holiday vouchers worth hundreds of euros as an incentive for them to spend their summer holidays in their part of the country.

These offers are available for the month of July, so if you want to find out more click on the link below. 

TRAVEL: Which regions in Spain are paying residents to go on staycations?