Which Exams? Private School Curriculums in Barcelona

Which Exams? Private School Curriculums in Barcelona
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Barcelona has quite a number of private or “International” schools, which teach much of the curriculum in English and promise to prepare your child for University anywhere in the world. But with a range of curriculums taught and different exams offered, how do you work out what will best suit your child’s future needs?

This post will look at the various curriculums and exams offered in English-language international schools in Barcelona, hopefully giving you the information you need to figure out which system makes sense for your child. Of course, there are also international schools based around languages other than English (such as the French, German, Swiss and Japanese schools) but this post will not cover those schools. Look out for future posts coming soon with more detailed information about each individual school.

Students in ES School Science Lab in Castelldefels
Students in the ES School Science Lab in Castelldefels, Barcelona.

Search international schools in Barcelona and you will find many slick websites full of the same phrases: “academic excellence”, “global citizens”, “individual focus”, “values-based education” and the like. The near-identical and mostly meaningless marketing spiel on school websites does little to enlighten prospective parents as to what is actually on offer. As a starting point, it’s crucial to understand what each school delivers in terms of curriculum and what exams students will be prepared for – “Education in English” can mean many things.

Teenage exams might seem a long way off if you are looking for a primary school, but it can be a huge upheaval to move your child later, so it’s best to have a clear idea of which path you are heading down.

International Schools in Barcelona might offer the International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge international Exams (IGSEs and A-levels), The American High School Diploma, and of course the Spanish ESO and Bachillerato. Most offer some combination of different curriculums and exams. Here’s a rough guide to the stages of the four main curriculums throughout school years:

School Curriculums Barcelona
A comparison of some of the school curriculums offered by international schools in Barcelona.

Let’s take a look at each curriculum in turn:

The Spanish Curriculum: ESO, Bachillerato and Selectividad

Just like in the public system, many international schools will be organised around the Spanish curriculum.  (In Catalonia, public schools teach the Spanish curriculum in Catalan, with a few modifications). Private schools are not obliged to follow the Spanish curriculum, apart from a minimum number of hours of Spanish and Catalan language, but many choose to.

This means that although they may be studying mostly in English, students will complete the Spanish Secondary Leaving Certificate (known as ESO) at 16, then the Advanced School Certificate (Bachillerato) at 18. They may also sit the Spanish University Entrance Exams (Prueba de Acceso a la Universidad, or PAU, commonly known as Selectividad) which take place just after the Bachillerato exams, at 18.

Some international schools which follow this system are St Paul’s School and Santa Clara International School. This type of system seems to be aimed mostly at local families who want their children to come out of school with a much higher level of English than they would be likely to achieve in the public system, but who prefer the straightforward path of the ESO/Bachillerato/Selectividad, rather than taking international qualifications.

Spanish universities do accept foreign qualifications such as A-levels and the IB Diploma (see below), but perhaps some students feel they will get a better grade taking exams in their native language. The Spanish qualifications, along with a recognised qualification in English (or other relevant language), are also accepted by many universities in Europe, although arguably the international qualifications may be held in higher regard.

Other schools, such as St Peter’s International School and Europa Sant Cugat, offer some international qualifications alongside the Spanish curriculum. Therefore, you may find that even schools which offer international qualifications like the IB or IGCSE are in fact very firmly grounded in the Spanish curriculum, with a few modifications allowing at least some of their students to sit international exams as an optional extra.

The American Curriculum: The American High School Diploma

There are several American Schools in Barcelona offering an American based curriculum (1st to 12th grade) leading to the American High School Diploma, which is valid for entrance into US universities, some British universities and some private universities around the world.

The main schools offering the American curriculum are The American School of Barcelona and Benjamin Franklin International School, which both also offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in the final two years (see below).

The ES International School in Castelldefels offers a purely American Curriculum with a specific emphasis on sports, assisting pupils seeking a sports scholarship to an American university. They also offer students Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The International British Qualifications: IGCSEs, AS-levels and A-Levels

Along with the International Baccalaureate (below) British qualifications the IGCSE, AS-levels and A-levels are the most popular international school qualifications offered at international schools around the world. They are based on the British Curriculum, with a few modifications, and are widely recognised and accepted by universities around the world. Because these qualifications are popular with international schools worldwide, families who might move back  home or to another country will be able to minimise disruption to their children’s education by continuing with the same system.

There are two exam boards: Cambridge Assessment International Education and Edexcel, but from the point of view of students, it makes little difference as the qualification received is the same. Students take IGCSEs at 16 (Year 11 in the UK system, or 4th ESO in the Spanish system) giving them the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, which is recognised by many countries as equivalent to their compulsory secondary school requirements. In Spain, IGCSEs are recognised as equivalent to the ESO, and students can formally validate their qualifications with the Spanish system if they need to (for example, if they wanted to enter a public school).

Students then go on to take Advanced Stage (AS-levels), usually a one-year course, or Advanced (A-levels), usually a two-year course at 18 (Year 13 in the UK system) to qualify them for University Entrance.

Quite a few international schools in Barcelona offer IGCSEs and A-levels, but it’s worth noting that not all offer the full British curriculum. A few schools, such as the British School of Barcelona and Kensington School, offer a full British curriculum which closely mirrors schools in the UK, so IGCSE subjects are delivered with the exam in mind. Other schools may teach the Spanish curriculum in English but adapt it so that at least some of their students can take the IGCSE in the subject, in addition to completing the ESO. Many schools mention IGCSEs on their websites, but it’s worth investigating the details.

The International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate has become the main alternative to the British international qualifications for international schools. A few schools offer both systems but most choose one or the other.

By far the most popular programme is the Diploma Programme (IBDP) which is a two-year course from 16-18. However, there is also a Primary Years Programme (PYP) and a Middle Years Programme (MYP). The only school near Barcelona which does the full IB programme from primary is SEK Catalunya, but many offer the diploma programme in the final two years of secondary. Some schools who offer the IB Diploma are starting to introduce either the PYP or the MYP, working towards offering the full programme in the future (Hamelin Laie and Agora Sant Cugat are two of these).

The main selling point of the IBDP is its rigour and claim to prepare students for university-level study through its emphasis on independent learning and critical thinking. Students prepare an extended research-based essay on one of their subjects and also study theory of knowledge. Oral presentations form an important part of the assessment. Some schools offer the IBDP in English only, some in Spanish only. At SEK Catalunya and Hamelin Laie students can choose Spanish or English.

Like the international British qualifications, the IBDP is recognised and accepted by universities around the world, making it a popular choice for those students planning to study outside Spain (although it is also accepted by Spanish universities). If there is a choice of path, schools tend to recommend the IBDP to their most able students who have demonstrated an ability to work autonomously. The Bachillerato/Selectividad route is sometimes seen as more appropriate for students who prefer more structure and guidance in their studies.

Qualifications offered by international schools in Barcelona.
Qualifications offered by international schools in Barcelona.

This was a complicated topic to research so if you have spotted an error, please let me know here and I will be happy to correct it. Look out for future posts with more detailed information about individual international schools.

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