How Spain is changing its ESO secondary education system

The Spanish government has announced major changes to the country's secondary education system, with the overall aim of encouraging critical thinking instead of learning by rote as has traditionally been the case. Here's what you need to know.

Changes to high school in Spain
New curriculum in Spain. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

Spain’s Council of Ministers has approved this Tuesday the Royal Decree detailing changes to its Compulsory Secondary Education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, ESO), from ages 12 to 16. 

These changes will be implemented in the 2022-2023 academic year for the first and third years of ESO and in the 2023-2024 academic year for the 2nd and 4th years.

What are the overall changes? 

One of the main changes to the curriculum is that the Spanish government wants to promote reasoning and critical thinking over learning by rote, which has been traditionally been favoured in Spanish classrooms.

Students will learn how to apply their knowledge to real-world situations instead of just reading about subjects and copying notes. 

They also aim to prevent students from having to repeat subjects and failing. 

Reading comprehension, oral and written expression, digital competence, critical thinking, emotional values, and peace and creativity will be taught throughout the curriculum.

New educational concepts will also be introduced such as health education, sex education, gender equality and learning mutual respect as well as cooperation with other students.  

Special attention will be given to language, writing and mathematics, and extra time will also be dedicated to reading in all subjects.

New changes will also be made to how students are graded and evaluated, which the government hopes will lead to fewer failures.

How will school subjects be evaluated?

The new grading system will establish objectives and competencies which the students will have to pass. Students will only be allowed to repeat a subject once, with a maximum of two repetitions allowed over the whole time in ESO.  

Instead of repeating a subject, which has an “ineffective and regressive character” according to the new educational law (LOMLOE), methods for early detection, adaptation and student monitoring will be promoted. 

In each case, it will be up to the teachers whether a student passes or fails. Teachers will use the following grades: Insufficient (IN, equal to a D grade), Sufficient (SU, equal to a C- grade), Good (BI, equal to a C grade), Notable (NT, equal to a B grade), or Outstanding (SB, equal to an A grade).

In the case of subjects that integrate different topics of study, they will be marked with a single grade. 

Decisions on whether students should move up from one year to another will be made by a teaching team, based on the achievement of objectives and skills. If the students have acquired these competencies, they will obtain the title of Graduated in ESO. 

students in Spain

Students will be taught reasoning and critical thinking. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

Will there be any new subjects? 

Yes, there will be changes to the existing subjects, as well as the addition of new subjects.

Subjects studied in the first three years of ESO will be Biology and Geology; Physical Education; Visual and Audiovisual Arts; Physics and Chemistry; Geography and History; Spanish Language and Literature; Foreign Languages; Maths; Music; and Technology and Digitisation. 

The two new subjects of Technology and Digital Studies must be taken in the first three years of ESO, while in the fourth year, there will be another subject on just Digital Studies, which will be optional. According to Spain’s new LOMLOE law, these subjects are aimed at “the development of certain skills of a cognitive and procedural nature”. 

Economics and Entrepreneurship is another addition, which will be optional in the fourth year. The purpose of this subject will be “to promote the entrepreneurial spirit”, “to help students understand that entrepreneurs must make their way in a global context”; and finally, that the students “transfer their knowledge to practical situations by developing an entrepreneurial project”.

Religious studies will be optional and Spain’s regions will also have the choice of incorporating Spanish sign language into the 4th year of ESO.   

The additions mean that a couple of subjects have been eliminated from the curriculum, including Philosophy and the chronological teaching of History.

For the first time, the main historical facts will not be taught. Instead, events will be grouped into thematic blocks such as “marginalisation and segregation, control and submission in the history of mankind.” Events such as the Conquest of America and the French Revolution are not mentioned in the new curriculum.  

In the 4th year of ESO, another new guidance course will also be introduced, which will prepare students for further studies or working life.

Gender roles and progressive ideas 

According to LOMLOE law, education will have a clear “gender perspective”. Courses in Civic and Ethical Values will also be introduced and will replace Education for Citizenship studies. 

The new law states that students will “become aware of the struggle for effective gender equality, and of the problem of violence and exploitation of women, through the analysis of the various waves of feminism, inequality issues, violence and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and LGBTQI+ rights”.

Language and literature subjects will look at issues such as equal rights as well as the “recognition of the linguistic and dialectal diversity of Spain and of the world, combating linguistic prejudices and stereotypes and stimulating linguistic reflection”.

Personal and cultural identity, ethics, and the environment will also play central roles across the subjects. 

How many hours will each subject be taught for?

Hourly schedules will also be changed under the new law, meaning that different subjects will be granted more or less time. 

The most number of hours will be dedicated to Spanish Language and Literature at 325 hours for the first three years and 115 hours in the fourth year of ESO. 

The new subject of Technology and Digitisation, which will be taught in the first three years, will be the second highest with 140 hours, more hours than Biology and Geology, which will be allotted 105 hours. 

105 hours will also be allotted to Religion, Music, Physical Education, Visual and Audio Visual Arts, Physics and Chemistry, while Education in Ethical and Civic Values will be allocated 65 hours. 

In the 4th year of ESO, all subjects will be taught for 65 hours, with the exception of Spanish Language and Literature, Foreign Language and Maths, which will be assigned 100 to 115 hours. Physical Education and Religion will only be taught for 35 hours during the entire school year.

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What are the rules and costs for foreigners who want to go to university in Spain?

If you're thinking of going to university in Spain and want to know what qualifications you need to get in, how much tuition fees cost and what the differences are for international students, this explainer has the information you're after.

What are the rules and costs for foreigners who want to go to university in Spain?

There are around 1.3 million students in higher education in Spain, according to the latest statistics available and the number of foreign students who studied in the Spanish University System (SUE) in the 2019-20 academic year amounted to 208,366.

Spanish universities generally have a good reputation and the country is even home to one of the world’s oldest universities – the University of Salamanca, which opened back in 1218. 

Accessing university for foreign residents in Spain

If you are a foreigner who has residency in Spain and you are over the age of 18, you can access Spanish universities under the same conditions as Spaniards.

You are also able to apply for the same scholarships and grants as Spanish students.

If you attended high school in Spain, you will take the same test as Spaniards to enter university –  the Bachillerato Assessment for University Access (EBAU or EvAU), also known as selectividad.

This is a compulsory test for Bachillerato students, which is Spain’s equivalent to A-levels after the age of 16, who want to access university.

Accessing Spanish universities for EU citizens

If you’re an EU citizen, in most cases you will have to get an accreditation issued by the UNEDassis service (University Application Service for International Students in Spain) in order to attend university here.

To do this, you must visit the website of the National Distance Education University (UNED) where you will have to submit your educational qualifications and transcripts. It opens in April each year. You will then receive your Credencial de Accesso (access credentials), which you will need to submit to your chosen university within 3 to 4 months.

Accessing Spanish universities for non-EU, non-resident citizens 

Foreigners who are not from an EU country and don’t have residency in Spain are still able to go to Spanish universities, however it is a little more complicated.

Firstly, you will need to go through the homologation process in order to get your qualifications recognised in Spain. This is carried out through the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, except if the university you want to attend is in Catalonia, Galicia or the Basque Country, because in those cases you must request homologation in the region itself. You can contact your local Spanish consulate to help you navigate the process.  

Once you have your qualifications recognised in Spain, by receiving the Accreditation (Volante de convalidación), you must pass the Bachillerato Assessment for University Access (EBAU) or the Specific Competence Tests (PCE). 

In addition, once you have received your place at a Spanish university, you must also apply for a student visa in order to legally be able to live in Spain during your studies.  

Recently, the Spanish government announced that it is preparing legislation that will mean non-EU university students will no longer have to renew their residence permit on a yearly basis, as well as allowing them to automatically stay in Spain for one or two years after graduating.

READ ALSO: Non-EU university students in Spain will be able to stay after finishing studies

What are the tuition fees for universities in Spain? 

Spain has both public and private universities and the cost greatly differs between the two.

In both public and private universities, the tuition you pay each year is obtained by multiplying the number of credits you enrol in by the cost per credit. Typically during each year of your studies, you take 60 credits.  

However, to make matters more complicated, each subject within the university has a different cost, depending on what you study. Each institution is free to set any tuition fee they choose because there are no fees set by the authorities.

On top of this, each region in Spain charges different amounts and some are considerably cheaper than others.  

According to data from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport the average price is usually between €750 per year at public universities in Andalusia, Cantabria and Galicia and approximately €2,000 per year at public universities in Madrid, Catalonia and Castilla y León.

For example, to study medicine at a public university in Andalusia costs €757 per year, while in Catalonia the cost is around three times this amount at €2,372 per year.  

At private universities, the cost of enrolment for undergraduate studies is around €9,500 per academic year, depending on the degree and institution chosen, but it can be higher. Generally, though, private universities do not exceed €20,000 per academic year. 

International students from the EU typically pay the same amount as national students in Spain, as do those who have prior residency in Spain.

For those from non-EU countries, it can be a little different, but because there are no set fees it will depend on lots of different factors as stated above.

According to Studyportals, an international student website, there are reports of non-EU citizens being charged the same as EU citizens, as well as of others being charged around €1,000 to €1,500 higher than those from the EU or even tuition that costs two or three times higher. Your best bet is to contact the university you’re interested in directly and ask for the price.

You should know that Spain offers many different types of grants and scholarships for students, many of which are open to international students, as well as Spaniards. Your local Spanish consulate should be able to give you information on those that may be available to you.