The Education System in Portugal

When considering moving to Portugal, finding the perfect school for your children can be a bit challenging. Luckily, Portugal has much to offer besides work and business opportunities, and those with families will be happy to know that education in Portugal is of an excellent standard.

The education system in Portugal is excellent, offering families a variety of choices for schools and universities, including international schools.

In this article, we’ll provide you with everything you need to know about the education system in Portugal, its stages and the differences between the school types, and how to find the most suitable choice for your children to guarantee an excellent education.


Education in Portugal

The education system in Portugal includes both free state and private schools where your children will receive the proper education at different ages. The Ministry of Education (Direção-Geral da Educação – DGE) regulates the education system in Portugal, starting from pre-school up until secondary school. School groups (agrupamentos escolares) also work closely with local municipalities to assign funding and define the curriculum. The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education (Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior – MCTES) oversees policies and budgets for higher education.

In Portugal, you will find a mix of state and private education. Since state education is free, most Portuguese families decide to choose public education or private education. Children can be enrolled in the pre-school education stage before the mandatory age of joining the school at six.

Portugal has witnessed a high illiteracy rate in the past but nowadays the level of education in Portugal is of a very high standard. For instance, students performed above average on the 2018 PISA tests, which cover reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, 92% of children attended pre-school in Portugal in 2019, which is higher than the OECD average of 88%.

Although the main educational language in the state schools is Portuguese, the country offers many good options for expats to enroll in international schools to make it easier for immigrant children to begin their educational journey by joining suitable schools in their native language. Understanding the stages of the education system in Portugal and all the available options for your children is important before deciding.


The structure of education in Portugal

In Portugal, you can choose to enroll your child in either a state school or a private school. If you pick a private school, you can check to see whether it’s certified by the relevant Ministry.

Regardless of whether you ultimately choose a state school or a private one, the education system in Portugal is the same. It consists of four stages, and comprises the following educational levels:

  • Pre-school education (Educação Pré-escolar): ages 3 to 6
  • Primary education (Ensino Básico): ages 6 to 15
  • Secondary education (Ensino Secundário): ages 15 to 18
  • Higher education (Ensino Superior): ages 18 and above

School is mandatory from the ages of 6 to 18. After that, students can proceed to university or apply for a job.

Note the language barrier if you are an expat and your children do not speak Portuguese, which could have an adverse effect on their learning process. Luckily, the state offers some free language courses and support to help children become more familiar with Portuguese from a young age. And there are various international schools where your children will be taught in their native language.


Pre-school education in Portugal


Pre-school education for children between the ages of three and five is still optional and is provided by kindergartens. The Ministry of Labor, Solidarity, and Social Security (Ministério do Trabalho, Solidariedade e Segurança Social) governs Portugal’s childcare services under the age of three. However, early childcare institutions are mainly privatized. Parents can choose between kindergartens (creches) or childminders (amas) who come to their homes.

Pre-school education (Educação Pré-escolar) is free for 25 hours a week from the age of three. However, private pre-schools, including international schools, Montessori, and Waldorf institutions, charge tuition fees.

Although this is not a mandatory stage in the children’s education, many working parents choose this option because they don’t have enough time to educate their children themselves at this age and get them ready to join primary school without any difficulties.

Primary education in Portugal

As mentioned, primary education (Ensino Básico) is compulsory in Portugal from the age of 6 to 15. There is a large network of private and international primary schools in Portugal, and you can probably find one or two schools close to where you live.

The primary school system in Portugal

The ministry of education supervises all the policies regarding state schools, and this stage includes three main cycles (escolas básicas) as follows:

First cycle (primeiro ciclo or 1º ciclo): Grades 1 to 4

This cycle lasts for 4 years and one single teacher is responsible for teaching students.

Second cycle (segundo ciclo or 2º ciclo): Grades 5 to 6

This cycle lasts for 2 years and different teachers are responsible for teaching a wide range of subjects.

Third cycle (terceiro ciclo or 3º ciclo): Grades 7 to 9

This cycle lasts for 3 years and one teacher is responsible for teaching the given subject area. This cycle covers vocational studies also. At the end of this cycle, a diploma/certificate is awarded.


Public primary schools in Portugal

With the fact that public schools in Portugal are free, many locals go for this option and prefer to send their children to public schools. In public schools, parents don’t worry about any fees, except for some minor costs such as books, school meals, and the occasional field trip.

The national curriculum is similar for all public schools across the country. Pupils study Portuguese, mathematics, science, history, geography, and English which is a mandatory subject. This may be why Portugal has become one of the top 10 English-speaking countries in Europe. Additionally, from Grade 7, students can choose to study another foreign language, which is usually French or Spanish.

It is important to be aware that you must choose a school that is close to your residence or place of work. Furthermore, when applying, you will need to show proof of your address. There can also be waiting lists, especially for popular public schools, so it’s best to register early.

It’s worth mentioning that the quality of the public schools in Portugal is good, but children who don’t speak Portuguese as their native language will struggle to understand what is said in class. Expat parents have two options to fix this, either they start learning the Portuguese language before having kids to be able to follow up with them when they join the school. Or, if the previous option is too late and they already moved to Portugal with children of school age, they may consider private international schools.


Private primary schools in Portugal

Private schools in Portugal allow the children to study in their native language and interact with other children from across the world. It also gives them continuity in their education if they relocate to another country or return home.

The advantages to private schools are smaller class sizes, a stronger system of extra-curricular activities, and more modern facilities. Some even offer boarding options. However, it’s worth considering that teachers at private schools in Portugal are generally paid less than their public-school colleagues, and may possibly be younger and less experienced.

International schools are very popular with Golden Visa residents, due to their high standards of education and a variety of curricula.

They often have strict admissions processes, which will vary from school to school; some require entrance exams, past school records, and even a personal interview. Many parents choose this option, confident that their children will receive a world-class education that ensures that they can compete with their peers across the globe when the time comes for university-level higher education.

If you’d like to look into international schools, check out our comprehensive guide to international schools in Portugal here.

Secondary education in Portugal

Secondary education in Portugal is also compulsory. This educational level is mainly to enhance the children’s level of knowledge and improve the skills they already gained in primary school. This stage of education is critical because it prepares the students for higher education and the job market.


The secondary school system in Portugal

Secondary education lasts for three years from grade 10 to grade 12, and to get admittance into this level, students must hold a certificate of basic school education. This educational level comprises general courses, artistic, and vocational or technical courses.


Public secondary schools in Portugal

Public secondary education (Ensino Secundário) is free in Portugal, and the quality is generally good. Students must study core subjects, such as Portuguese, philosophy, physical education (PE), and a foreign language. However, the rest of the curriculum will depend on their chosen stream.

Students can choose between vocational (Cursos Profissionais) or science-humanities streams (Cursos Científico-Humanísticos). Those following the Cursos Profissionais study to achieve trade qualifications, gaining direct access to careers in the fields of IT, design, or hospitality. Meanwhile, Cursos Científico-Humanísticos streams are more academic and include subjects like visual arts, sciences, and humanities. Students looking to pursue a career in a creative field can also choose the third option and take a specialized artistic course (Cursos Artísticos Especializados).


Private secondary schools in Portugal

In case you will go with the private school option for your children, you can choose between three available types in Portugal including religious, international, and boarding options.

Religious schools

A good number of the secondary schools in Portugal are Catholic institutions, where students study some religious subjects along with the main core curriculum. Many parents choose these schools because they perform better in the annual exams (in Portuguese) and offer a wider range of extramural activities. Some schools also teach in English and students can graduate with the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. School fees can range between €2,500 and €10,000 a year.


International schools

International schools are the best option for expats living in Portugal. These schools offer a multicultural environment that provides students with more international skills and the ability to engage more with different cultures and learn a lot in their native languages.

Parents have the possibility to choose British, American, French, and German schools, which is ideal if they prefer their child to learn in their home language or be familiar with the curriculum. Luckily, the fees of the international schools in Portugal are relatively affordable as compared to other European countries, and start at around €5,000 a year.


Boarding schools

Families looking for boarding schools in Portugal will find prestigious schools, each as unique as the students who attend them. There are only a few boarding schools in Portugal and these are mostly located around Lisbon and the Algarve. Before applying, it is advisable to visit the school to explore the facilities and get a feel for the program. Tuition fees are typically around €30,000 a year.

International Baccalaureate (IB) in Portugal

International Baccalaureate is a pre-university education curriculum that prepares the students for bigger challenges in higher education. Students can graduate from secondary school with the International Baccalaureate (IB). Universities recognize this qualification around the whole world, and it’s a plus for any student applying to any university for higher education. The course is designed to develop children’s creativity and sense of community. The IB Diploma is available at 12 schools in Portugal, which include international schools and a few private Portuguese institutions.

Graduating in Portugal

Higher education in Portugal is well-respected worldwide. Five of the country’s universities feature in the QS World University Rankings 2016/17, the highest entry being the University of Porto. Portugal’s higher education system itself ranked as the 35th best in the world in the first edition of the QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings.

Alongside its top universities, Portugal is also home to several reputable polytechnics, which focus on preparing students for a specific career path. Some subjects are only offered at either universities or polytechnics, but plenty of overlap means that both universities and polytechnics offer degrees in subjects like engineering, management, and humanities.

Most courses, especially those at a bachelor’s level, are taught in Portuguese. However, several English-language programs exist at the graduate level, mirroring trends found throughout European universities.

Higher education in Portugal is divided into two subsystems:

University: Universities in Portugal offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. These higher education institutions focus on theoretical education and research.

Polytechnics: Polytechnic institutes in Portugal offer undergraduate and master’s degree programs. They offer education and training in a specific field.


Financial aid and scholarships

In Portugal, students can benefit from different types of scholarships that are available in both the government and higher education institutions for local and international students.

Portugal, being a member of the EU, takes part in all EU-derived scholarships, like Erasmus Mundus programs, etc. In Portugal, there are several private and semi-private organizations and institutes that offer scholarships for study in the Portuguese language and culture, sciences, and technology.

Children from low-income families can also apply for government support in Portugal. Parents can request financial aid, which is known as Ação Social Escolar (ASE), through their school. They can also apply for a family allowance (abono de família).

It is worth mentioning that the Portuguese government offers also provides financial support for children with disabilities, and their families can apply for this support and get at least one of the following subsides through the Portuguese social security system (Segurança Social).:

There are different financial support options that children can get to cover their school tuition fees. Parents can talk to the school management and show proof of their low-income status, to discuss the available options for their children.


Educational support for expat students in Portugal

In Portugal, there is always a place for expats and their children, hence there are some schools that offer Portuguese language support classes for students who don’t speak Portuguese, in order to be able to join the school and follow up with their studies.

Just know that this language support is not the norm in all the cities, and it’s mainly famous in the bigger cities, so it is better to check in details about the city you’re planning to move to. Alternatively, you might want to consider schools that offer bilingual programs.

You can contact the High Commission for Migration (Alto Comissariado para as Migrações – ACM) with any education-related questions.


Support for children with special educational needs (SEN)

In order to grant equal opportunities to children with special needs, Portugal wants to create an inclusive educational system (educação inclusiva). According to this plan, most mainstream schools offer special educational needs (SEN) programs. Moreover, the Ministry of Education has issued a list of state schools (in Portuguese) that actively promotes inclusion.

Children under the age of six can receive the proper education at home with the help of a specialized teacher, or at the kindergarten if the parents are working. After that, they can join primary school and receive an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) which is adapted to their learning needs. For example, it can include specific learning tools or special conditions for exams. Children also receive a plan at the end of school to help them transition into adult life. Schools with special education are available in the major cities in Portugal, where there are facilities for children who have hearing or visual impairments or developmental disabilities.

Furthermore, specific organizations can provide additional support. For example, (CADIn) is a non-profit organization that helps families whose children have neurodevelopmental disorders.


Changing schools in Portugal

Children can change schools freely in Portugal. Home address is one of the main requirements while applying for a new school or changing the current one. In case of changing addresses, children can change schools at any time during the year, you will just need to justify the transfer.


Chances for parental involvement in schooling in Portugal

Parents who care about the education their children receive, and prefer to be more involved can join the Associação de Pais – Parent Teacher Association (PTA). This will be a little bit of a challenge for expats parents who still don’t speak the Portuguese language because all the meetings of this association are held primarily in Portuguese.


Homeschooling is legal in Portugal, but it’s not a very common option, and a really small number of children have been enrolled in homeschooling or individual teaching lately.

Parents prefer to choose schools for their children’s education for valid reasons. For instance, children that receive homeschooling must have an individual tutor who has a university degree and lives in the same house as the children. This includes sitting the annual exams, which are in Portuguese.

For more information, you can visit the website of Movimento Educação Livre (MEL), which is one of the leading homeschool associations in Portugal.

Useful resources

Frequently asked questions about education in Portugal

Does Portugal have a good education system?

Portugal has an excellent education system that offers a variety of options for both local and international children.

What is education like in Portugal?

Portugal has an excellent reputation for its quality education system, and the government has over the years invested a lot of money in schooling and universities, ensuring an excellent standard is maintained.

Is university education free in Portugal?

The university education system in Portugal applies the standards of the European Bologna System, and it’s considered one of the most affordable higher education systems in the European Union.

How is public education in Portugal?

Public schools in Portugal are free, many locals go with this option and prefer to send their children to public schools. In public schools, parents don’t worry about any fees, except for some minor costs such as books, school meals, and the occasional field trip.

Do schools in Portugal speak English?

Public schools in Portugal mainly use the Portuguese language, and some schools offer language support classes for expat children to enhance their language and get involved with their colleagues inside the class.

Are there English-speaking schools in Portugal?

Private schools have different schemes with different languages, and English is one of the main spoken languages in those private schools. Check out the schools that offer bilingual programs.