Math Class Drops the Mic

A blog about teaching, with an emphasis on math.

Monday, November 16, 2015

High School and Beyond, Spanish Style (An Interview)

Thanks to Darlene Anne for organizing this intriguing blog hop around the theme of Creating a Global Classroom!

As I live in Spain this is a great opportunity for me to share a little about the educational system here. I've interviewed a health teacher at a vocational school in Alicante to bring you insights into the path of a typical Spanish student. Loida Moya Smith is our interview subject--she's a nurse who teaches at the Secondary Education Institute of Leonardo da Vinci in Alicante. She offers one of many perspectives on education in Spain. Enjoy!

We call the last four years of schooling before university “high school.” I gather it’s somewhat different in Spain?

Yes, we have primary school from age 6-12, then secondary school from age 12-16, then students can stop studying if they want. At 16 they can either continue with vocational training for 2-4 years, or the Bachillerato. Bachillerato is a two-year program that finishes with an exam called Selectividad. Your grade on this exam along with your grade in the Bachillerato program are averaged to determine university admission.

So if a student wants to go to medical school for example, do they take the same Bachillerato course as every other student, or do they need to select a particular path?

They would need to select the Technology and Sciences track in Bachillerato then take the Selectividad for that. Students can select either Technology and Sciences, Social Sciences or Art, with some sub-divisions. Everyone has to take Spanish language, Spanish literature, a foreign language, philosophy, physical education, ethics, contemporary science and Spanish history. Then if students choose the Technology and Science, for example, they take courses like physics, technical drawing and math.

In the US, university admission is based on your grades for four years, the difficulty of the classes you take, your performance on AP exams, standardized tests like the SAT, your application, teacher recommendations, extra-curriculars and more. Are their other factors at play for admission in Spain besides Bachillerato and Selectividad?

No. It’s always been based on just those two things. But it used to be that you had 4 years that were included in the Bachillerato and now it’s just 2. And that means that students only have pressure for the 2 years and they don’t try hard enough because it doesn’t count and students aren’t that motivated.

Don’t kids or parents think, if I don't do well now I won’t be able to succeed in Bachillerato later?

Many times we call parents when we see low grades, and they listen and accept what we say, but they don’t generally put a lot of pressure on them.

Why is that?

I think actually this goes all the way back to the Spanish Civil War (which ended in 1939), when the priorities were protecting and preserving family in the face of adversity. My grandparents were more concerned with keeping us safe and together. Like many people of that time, they had a farm which provided food, and even I grew up in that same environment. All they wanted to do was keep the family together, so much so that when I left my home to study in Ceuta it was initially difficult for my family to accept that I was leaving our town. So even though success in school and career is important, the first priority is always a happy kid that is close to the family.

Do you think the economic crisis of 2009 has changed anything?

I think so, young people are more motivated to find a job outside of the country.

How much does it cost to go to university in Spain?

Around €2000 for a public university. It could be €10,000 to €20,000 for a year at a private university. Usually students can find the money for a public university if they don’t have it—I attended university on a government grant.

Are you much more likely to get a job with a university degree?

Any health related degree is good. It’s hard to find a job with a law degree.

What about vocational training?

Students who are studying in health or science related technical fields, like nursing assistants and laboratory technicians, they are finding work pretty quickly.

Is there an effort to continually update vocational training to fit the evolving needs of the economy?

In the past five years there are lots of new health related degrees, which is my area of expertise, and I know there are new programs related to tourism, restaurant work, graphic design and computer programming.

Would you recommend vocational training or university for a student?

Vocational training can really motivate a student. Students can get a mid-level degree which enables them to work, but then they can take two more years and get a superior degree which provides better work opportunities and they can go to university without jumping through the Bachillerato and Selectividad. I think unless a student is very motivated academically, going through vocational school and working first gives students life experience, and then they can go to university with a clearer vision of their future.

What advice would you give to an American student considering attending a university in Spain?

Be ready to socialize. It can be tough to study in Spain—you have to have clear goals and be prepared to try hard and stay focused. We have great universities and in particular our medical research institutions and nursing programs are very strong. There are clubs and teams but it’s not heavily promoted—the main extra-curricular is the night-life.

Loida Moya Smith
Health Education
IES Leonardo da Vinci, Alicante


  1. That was a fascinating read! Thank you for sharing what it's like in Spain. It says a lot that VoTech is such a big draw for students. I hope the pendulum swings back to it being OK for students to take that route here, in the states.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Vocational training has always been in the mix here, but I think that given the post-crisis economic climate here, which includes around 20% unemployment overall with youth unemployment at around 50%, there is a real push to provide effective fast tracks to employment, either here or around Europe. Because of an aging population, health care is a growth industry here as in the US, so that's a big focus for vocational schools. While these schools don't change rapidly they are nimble when measured against the universities here.

  2. I really enjoyed learning about education in Spain, thanks for sharing!

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