The Education System in Portugal: Understanding How It Works

Portugal has become the perfect destination for many people, regardless of whether they settle in Lisbon, Porto, Braga, Coimbra, or any number of cities and towns. Security, quality of education, new job opportunities, and cost of living are just some of the reasons. 

Many students search for opportunities to study abroad and experience a multicultural education, whether they plan to enroll in undergraduate programs, specialized graduate education, master’s degrees, or doctoral programs or take only a few classes to complement their studies.

The Basics of the Portuguese Education System 

The state Ministry of Education and the state Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education regulate the Portuguese education system. Public education is the most popular and best-implemented system in the country, but there are also excellent private schools at all grade levels. The quality of education in Portugal is extremely high, with a national literacy rate of 95% and an enrollment rate in basic education of close to 100% of all children of school age.

The Portuguese school year starts after the end of summer, with the first semester running from September to January. The second semester runs from February to June, when the summer break starts. There are other breaks during the school year, for Christmas, the New Year, and other holidays.

Schools are not completely free in Portugal. In public schools, for example, parents must pay for their children’s meals and teaching materials, but depending on the financial situations of individual families, institutions can commit to partial refunds of book costs..

The excellent quality of public education in Portugal means that a solid 80% of students attend public schools. Children must attend the closest public school to their home, which means that parents cannot choose from among public schools. For this reason, parents should access the website of the Direção-Geral dos Estabelecimentos Escolares – DGEstE (Directorate-General for Schools) to find a list of all local schools and learn what school they will enroll their children in.

Private school tuition varies between €500 and €800 monthly. Generally, children learn two foreign languages, including English and another language (usually German or French), to the point of fluency by the time they graduate. 

Both public and private schools are full-time and have excellent infrastructure for students’ physical and recreational activities. 

Documents

International families need to provide various documents to enroll children aged three years and above, such as a Número de Identificação Fiscal – NIF (Tax Identification Number), passports, proof of health insurance, proof of address, translation of the updated vaccination card, and a request for credentials at the Centro Nacional de Apoio ao Imigrante – CNAI (National Immigrant Support Center), which will allow a child of foreign nationality to enter a Portuguese school. Children aged six and above will need all these documents, except for the CNAI credential. If the children already began their studies prior to moving to Portugal, parents must request that their children’s signed and notarized academic transcripts be sent from their original school(s) to the new school in Portugal.

The Four Levels of the Education System

The Portuguese education system is divided into four different age-based levels: pre-primary (nursery school and kindergarten), basic education, secondary education, and higher education (the last of which is not mandatory).

Pre-Primary School

Since pre-primary education is optional for children between the ages of three and five (at age six, kindergarten becomes mandatory), spaces in nursery schools—both public and private—are limited. To get a space in a public nursery school, parents must register their kids and get onto a waiting list. Public nursery schools are free, except for the cost of meals, which depends on family income. In private nursery schools, monthly tuition may vary from around €150 to €300, and parents must be interviewed before their children are accepted (or not) into the institution. For both public and private nursery schools, slots usually open up in September, but parents can register their kids as early as January.

Basic Education

Children begin studying no later than age six and then spend the next twelve years in school. Basic education in Portugal, which comes after the pre-primary period and before secondary education, is divided into three required sequences, structured as follows:

  • First cycle (first through fourth years of school), ages 6 to 10
  • Second cycle (fifth and sixth years of school), ages 10 to 12
  • Third cycle (seventh through ninth years of school), ages 12 to 15

Students in the first cycle must complete a workload of 25 hours per week. In the second and third cycles, the workload increases to 30 hours per week. Classes usually begin at 9:00 and end at 15:30.

Apart from regular schools, Portugal has many international institutions that bring together students of different nationalities. International schools in the country are very prominent in the private system, with very high-quality facilities, small classes, and extracurricular and bilingual activities. International schools (including British, American, French, German, and IB, and most located near Lisbon or Porto) offer varied curriculums. Famous schools across Portugal include St. Peter’s School, the PaRK International Cascais, St. Julian’s School, Carlucci American International School of Lisbon, and International Preparatory School, among others.

Secondary Education

Secondary education, with expected ages of attendance from 15 to 18 years old, comprises the three years after students complete their basic education. It includes four types of courses:

  • Scientific/humanistic;
  • Technological;
  • Specialized artistic;
  • Professional.

When students complete this cycle, they are qualified to embark on their undergraduate degrees, also called  licentiates or licenciaturas. 

Higher Education

Higher education is meant for students who have completed secondary education or have a legally equivalent qualification. Portugal, like nearly all other European countries, adheres to the Bologna Process agreements that standardize European post-secondary education (determining, for example, that higher education courses must last three years, etc.).

Higher education in Portugal follows two main systems. The first applies to classical universities, which focus more on research and scientific investigation, and the second applies to polytechnic institutions, which provide more practical training.

All universities in Portugal require tuition, paid with either private or state funding. ​​At private universities, Portuguese and foreign students generally pay the same tuition, because these institutions do not have government subsidies, unlike public universities, where costs may differ for Portuguese versus foreign students. Foreign students who have legal residency in Portugal usually pay the same tuition as native-born Portuguese students. Another difference is that the annual tuition may vary according to the number of credits or subjects the student takes.

Portuguese universities are prestigious and occupy high positions in international education rankings, with particular emphasis on medicine, engineering,  nursing, and architecture. 

After completing an undergraduate degree, students can work on a master’s degree with a duration from one and a half to two years, and the doctorate, which can last up to three years beyond the master’s degree. There is also the possibility of combined undergraduate and master’s degrees, lasting between 10 and 12 semesters.

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