Inclusive education in Spain

Inclusive Education in Spain

Inclusion: Responsibility or Choice?

Playroom outside the classrooms of Escola Angels Alemany

When you walk into a Spanish school, you immediately notice how much space there is and how well-kept the old buildings are. The new ones are fresh, light and equipped with all the modern comforts. The hallways are quiet and rows of desks with children fill the classrooms.

Outside, you notice how much room is reserved for sports and games. Basketball, soccer and table-tennis are sports activities you find in all the playgrounds. 

The educational system was fixed using a national curriculum. For young children pre-school education is available. In many places, children start school at the age of three. In that sense Spain has integral child centres, where both day care/playgroup as well as education are situated in the same building.

Playground at secondary school Roca Grossa Instituto

School in the Neighbourhood

Whereas schools in The Netherlands have an important function in the neighbourhood, those in Spain are closed off with high fences and/or walls. When asked why, teachers, headmasters and people in the street tell you that the fences are there to accomodate the soccer. Spain is a soccer-country; ‘BARCELONA!’ they add enthusiastically.

Not only does it sound odd to me, I also realize that the concept of ‘school in the neighbourhood’ plays no role whatsoever here. When the school is closed, children cannot use the sports facilities in the playground. Neither could I find any schools that offer neighbourhood-related after-school activities.

Upon Inquiry, it appeared that schools are being used for activities after all, but not because they want to connect to the neighbourhood they are located in. The school timetable in secondary schools does no longer incorporate a siesta. As a result, children are free from school before many of the parents get home from work. That is why many after-school activities are offered. Students who do not participate, for the most part are home alone, which is a going concern regarding the upbringing of children in Spain.

Spanish Playgrounds

Exlusion within Inclusion

Inclusion is the norm in Spain. When one looks closely and asks around, one notices that the extent of inclusion differs significantly from school to school. In order to gain insight in the rules and regulations, I talked to the psychologist of a so-called USEE-school. USEE stands for Unitat de Suport d’Education Especial.In order to be allowed access to special education in any form in Spain, there must be a medical cause. This cause is established via the medical statement of a certified doctor. In the schools I visited (amongst which Escola Angels Alemany), approximately ten children per school receive a form of special education. This additional support is evaluated once yearly by a team of specialists, in which the psychologists also takes part. In a special classroom, the children are taught language and calculus, after which they go back to their own classroom to be taught the other subjects. Because of this approach, pupils regard differences between children as completely normal. This is only the case in primary schools, however. In secondary schools, there is no special approach for children that need additional support. Both the image children have of themselves and others as well as the amount of tolerance they exhibit, are different when compared to primary schools, and ask for vigilance of the educators. The system in secondary schools raises a lot of questions, about which more below. But first, let’s go back to the situation in primary schools.

As soon as a  medical statement is procured, a child can start in the special class. The statement is issued if the child’s intelligence is below average. Children with a normal intelligence combined with for instance autism thus cannot participate in a special class.

Special classes are financed by the national government, but partly also by local authorities. The extra impetus from the municipality makes it possible to work with more people in the classroom. In the special classes, a teacher works − depending on the municipal contribution and need for additional care − with up to a maximum of three teaching-assistants. This makes it possible to offer the main courses tailored to the level of each child individually.

Extra Support Without a Medical Statement

When a child does not have a medical statement but nevertheless needs extra support, for instance because of dyslexia or autism, every school has a special needs teacher available. This teacher works with the child, or writes a programme which is implemented by an assistant who works with the child for a few hours a day. This can only be done for a restricted amount of hours; the rest of the day, the regular teacher works on his own. The assistant is deployed depending on the amount of children in the school with special needs. The assistant-hours available can thus differ constantly. Whether children need additional support is determined by a multi-disciplinary team. Every school has a speech therapist and a special needs teacher. When needed, these can call for the help of additional specialists, such as a psychologist. USEE-schools have their own psychologist. Additional support in regular classrooms was available in all the schools I visited. Both teachers as well as parents are very content with this system.

‘Free’ Education

As is also the case in The Netherlands, children in Spain have a right to free education. The educational system, which is financed by the national government, has a ‘public’ character: it does not adhere to a religion or faith. Other forms of education do exist, but is those cases the schools usually are partially or completely private. I visited a catholic school which offers free education for children between the ages of one and sixteen, which is private for the last two years, when the school prepares the children for university.

Education itself may be free, but children do have to pay for their books and notebooks. Funds for people who cannot afford these, are available. In many primary schools the school uniform is obligatory.

When children need more additional support than the options described above, they can go to a special school. Special schools are only available for children with a medical statement. The government funds the transportation and lunch for these children. Books and materials are also free in these schools. Because relatively few children attend these special schools, many cities do not have one. Children living in Lloret de Mar for instance, have to travel to Gerona, where a school for deaf and deaf-and-dumb children is located. Blanes also has a special school, where many different types of special needs are catered for. This school is mostly attended by children in their teens.

Secondary Education

Secondary education is organized according to the same principles as primary education. In Lloret de Mar, I visited a USEE-school, Roca Grossa Instituto. Like primary schools, this school also has a class attended by around ten children with special needs, who get several hours of extra support. There also is a class for children who do not speak Spanish or Catalan, who get extra language-lessons for a few hours a week. There also is a class for children who are less motivated. This class is attended by pupils who do not fit within the system or are placed in the class temporarily because of the misbehave. These special classes are also designed for only a few children, who mostly attend them for a short period of time. 

The acceptance of differences as the basis for inclusion works quite well in primary education. In secondary education however, the case is far more complex. During puberty, issues like joining in with others, the development of one’s own identity and the distinguishing faculties start playing a part. This fact raises the critical question whether it is desirable for teenagers if they stand out because they are different, specifically during this period in their development.

Apart from that, one can wonder what one gains if a pupil does all the work he or she is supposed to, but eventually does not graduate, whereas all others in his class do. Didn’t he work just as hard as the others? When the perspective of a diploma with prospects of a professional future is not realistic, the school refers to the special school in BLanes. There, education is more practical, with the end-goal of functioning independently.

In the USEE-class of Boca Grassa Instituto, people apologize for the chaos and noise, ‘but at least children are getting an education!’


It is meaningful to realize that the questions that are raised by special education in general are universal. The fundamental attitude that it is important to learn children from an early age that there are differences between people, brings us that diversity becomes more of a matter of course, at least in primary education. In secondary education it is not just about deviation, but more about a stage of development in combination with being different.

Eventually, realizing at an early age that there are differences, learning how to relate to those and cope with them, gains us a broader perspective on the world and on being human. As a result, the eventual acceptance is broader. This is a process that takes years. In Spain, one sees discussions that are very similar to those in The Netherlands. Parents who really do not want inclusion opt for private education and are not only willing to pay for that, but also to travel for it. Private education in Spain costs around a thousand euro’s per month. And as teachers and headmasters told me: what parents eventually pay for, is a ticket to university. This is an important point of attention where the quality of education is concerned, and it leads to the current discussion whether university should be accessible to everyone. The government is working on a new law regarding this issue, but one is told about that by educational professionals with reservation, as everyone knows that there is e new government every two years and that, because of the crisis, for the past few years there have only been budget-cuts on education.

Room for the Spirit

What I really enjoyed seeing was that none of the schools have bells. Changes between lessons, beginning and end are heralded by music. Every week, another musician is highlighted. During my visit, one of the schools was having a Bob Dylan-week. As long as the music sounds, pupils can walk around. As soon as the music stops, everybody is supposed to be in his or her classroom and sit down. When the class-change or recess is over, all children are quiet and listen to ‘reiki’ meditation-music. Everybody remains quiet for five minutes, after which everyone is settled down.

Meditation, but also massage-like techniques seem to play an important role within the educational system. Even in the classes for three-year olds, the children are being taught techniques with which to massage each other.


Another current discussion is about the length of schooldays. In many primary schools the siesta is still in use. Nevertheless many people, mostly teachers, say this is out of date and in conflict with what we now know about the way in which children learn. The prevailing rhythm in primary school is lessons from 08.30 or 09.00 a.m. until 12.30 or 01.00 hours p.m. and again from 03.00 until 04.30 p.m.

During recess, children can either go home, or they can take lunch at school. The choice is up to the parents. Whether or not parents let their children take lunch at school depends strongly on the location of the school. 

Changing this system is not easy. Because the siesta is also incorporated in the daily routine of working parents, there is a great need for after-school care in Spain (as is also the case in The Netherlands). Most secondary do not have a siesta any more. In those schools, the schedule is two hours of lessons, twenty minutes recess, two hours of lessons, twenty minutes of recess followed by a last two hours of lessons. After that, children can go to extracurricular activities such as sports and music. These are specifically designed to prevent that children are home alone or roam in the streets. People are trying to find solutions and the discussion on the subject is ongoing, but there is no fitting answer as yet.

The last current discussion I would like to share with you is the one on the alleged correlation between the neighbourhood a school is located in and the quality of the educational programme. Children in Spain have to go to school in their own district and the country also seems to have a problem with ‘white’ and ‘black’ schools. The Costa Brave knows many different nationalities, which lead to both problems with the language as well as integration. Regardless of the amount of energy that is put into supporting the individual child and the implementation of inclusion, a certain amount of exclusion seems to be more of a public manifestation of the need to belong to a specific class than a problem that we can solve with (international) agreements.

Is that a reason not to strive for inclusion? No. As far as I am concerned, it is essential that we learn to treat each other with mutual respect and equality. The younger one learns this, the better. I do believe that inclusion is a process in which one chooses from the heart first and foremost; from the conviction that inclusion should be the standard. This calls for a considerable investment in time and money.

It is important to realize that the Salamanca Statement was signed as early as June 1994 by Europe and our minister of Education at the time, J. Ritzen. The statement is the most authoritative document in the field of education and it is a global declaration. At its core, it declares that the principle of inclusive education is a legal obligation, unless there are compelling reasons not to comply with it in individual cases.

Marjolein Triest, October 2016 for Stapwerk, with thanks to Maurits van Hout, photography