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School adaptation in Portugal

This article will be helpful to parents whose choice fell on Portugal as a country for life and those who are going to choose an educational institution for a long time.

Indeed, all children have their educational path: for example, some parents initially plan to give their children an education in a private international school to enter a prestigious university. Here we will talk about expats who choose a free public education for their children for any reason. I will try to appease parents worried about how their child will feel in a Portuguese public school, how he or she will adapt, and what advantages (and possible disadvantages) await you.


Let me remind you that in Portugal, classes in public schools are conducted in Portuguese. It is obvious that not all children who come to Portugal know English at the proper level for communication, not to mention Portuguese. But, despite all the fears of parents and children, adapting the young person to a completely immersive environment is primarily fast and comfortable. On average, children begin to speak Portuguese quite proficiently in a year and begin to understand the language even earlier. Of course, it all depends on the individual child's characteristics, the school, the teacher, etc., but again, on average, there are no problems. I would like to share my impressions: it's all field observations, from personal experience, and the test subjects in our family are students of the 1st, 4th, and 7th grades.

First steps

Let's talk about how the child will feel at school, what he or she will do, and how the learning process will be organized. You don't have to worry that your child won't understand anything at school. The teachers find understanding with kids using gestures accompanied with appropriate Portuguese words, they try to be as correct as possible, and if children don't understand them, they are more likely to be the first to panic. With elder children who can more or less speak English, they try to talk in English, duplicating in Portuguese. Most of the school staff are smiling at students and parents, trying to provide as much help as possible in the educational process and adapting to a new environment, remembering each child’s names, favorite activities, habits, toys, and other important information. Of course, it all depends on the individual. There were cases of teachers who were not very attentive and even not quite adequate, but it has nothing to do with language or national characteristics, it rather depends on the type of personality of the teacher. You can complain to a higher authority if necessary, but it is usually enough to talk with the "offender" face-to-face in a peaceful atmosphere. Even in seemingly hopeless situations, you will get help because the attitude to the children is very reverent. We couldn't get the youngest into the same school, there are no places in the 1st and 4th grades at the same time. A trip to the General Directorate of Schools (Direção-Geral dos Estabelecimentos Escolares), in our case in the Centro area, and a discreet conversation describing the difficulties of separating the brother and sister, mixed with a few tears, solved the problem: in half an hour a place was found, and both children were enrolled in the same school.


Public schools vary in size, number of students, national composition, and number of teachers. This is why "Portuguese as a foreign language" lessons or "apoio" (support), which are obligatory steps in the adaptation process, are held differently. In large schools with many classes and many students (including foreigners), groups of children of different ages and languages are formed. Instead of studying general subjects in their classes, they take an intensive course in the Portuguese language for a while. Lessons may begin after a while, as they need to determine the group's composition, select the teacher, etc. In small schools, for example, with only 4 classes (1st through 4th, one in each grade), it is usually impossible to get a room and a teacher, so they try to work with children who do not speak Portuguese individually, sometimes even on Saturdays and during vacations. Regularly, foreign students take tests on what they have learned in Portuguese. The higher the proficiency level, the sooner the child will be moved to general education classes. Such a separation system of gradually entering a regular regime can last up to six months or more. You don't have to worry that your child will be behind in the general program because of learning the language, the subject teachers are happy to help, especially in grading. While the child is learning the language, he or she is only evaluated for Portuguese, in high school, of course, where they already give grades.

The first-grader had the easiest time adapting, and he immediately began to learn the school program in another language (with no comparison), caught everything on the fly, and pronounced Portuguese words. The older one (7th grade) makes less progress, but he has a multilingual environment: both Spanish and French, so he's picking up languages besides Portuguese a little. The fourth-grader had the most difficulties because she was used to a completely different type of school, and the language was not as easy to learn as her younger brother, but overall, her impression of the school was quite favorable.


Educational programs and tutorials

It should be noted that the educational program at school is not intense, there are 12 classes (only 9 are obligatory, after that, you can finish your primary education), and children are not overloaded with unnecessary details. There are only four subjects in elementary school (in the 1st grade, they have only three), including physical education. In the 7th grade, for example, there are no Algebra and Geometry, but a common subject called Math. Physics and Chemistry were combined into one subject. Many lessons are given in the form of presentations, and project work plays an essential role along with laboratory work. Children are taught to demonstrate oratorical skills and to apply their knowledge in practice, experiments, and observations. Self-education and self-discipline play a key role.

Only 1-4 grades have the home assignment, middle and high school are mostly exempt from it. Sometimes they can have something but rather as an exception. No one is forcing or persuading children to study or improve their level. If a child "fails", then he or she stays for a second year, which is not much of a shock to anyone, the only consequence may be problems with admission to the higher education institution, especially in state-funded education. This is why the Portuguese student is left to himself in this question, and, of course, many children can get out of hand, but after the first conversation with the homeroom teacher, everything quickly returns to normal. After the 9th grade, the student can choose to stay in school for 10-12 grades, picking the direction of the future university department to which he or she intends to enter, or go to a vocational school, get an applied specialty, and go to work.


Here studying is interesting because the textbooks mostly consist of pictures, even in high school (if I had had those when I was a kid, I would definitely have loved to learn), there is not much text, and everything is thesis-based or in the form of tables and infographics. It looks more like captions to the drawings, recalling encyclopedias for children. You can get textbooks for free without difficulties, and everything is fully automated: you don't even have to leave your home by ordering delivery. This applies to new books, the already used books (from the school library) the parent receives right before the start of the new school year. You only need to buy workbooks (6-10 euros per piece, depending on the class and subject) and stationery (lists for the kids are also issued before the school year, the older students would be good to have at least a pen and a pencil). Also, at the start of the school year, if you write an application, you can get a computer, not a MacBook, of course, but quite a new small lightweight laptop with charger, headphones, backpack to carry, and sim card to use mobile Internet. At the end of the school year, the device must be returned to the school in the same kit.

By the way, there is no need to carry textbooks to school every day: each student has his own locker, where he or she can put all the textbooks and get them when necessary according to the schedule. Usually, they take some deposit for a lock with a key, about 5 euros, which is later returned at the end of the school period. This is highly convenient because the child is sure not to forget anything (here, we can recall the painful daily collection according to the diary) and do not have to carry a heavy backpack every day.

Within the school program, there are always various excursions: local walks from the "Know or Love Your City" rubric, bus rides to various museums, visits to informative lectures or performances (for the latter, we have the hall of the local "culture house"). It is also considered an educational process, so all the activities take place instead of some lessons.


School meals

School meals are a separate issue for newcomers. The menu is considered well-balanced and healthy, there is always a soup of the most "inedible" kind and color for a child (soups in the brown and green palette prevail), and the main dish is often different fish, including the traditional bacalhau. In elementary school, meals are formalized once at the beginning of education, and the child gets lunch daily. Of course, teachers insist that children should eat, some even force them, and in some cases, they try to talk to the parents. If there is time, the child can go home for lunch if he or she doesn't eat at all or have any dietary restrictions. In high school, it is easier: there is no "obligation" to eat. You can supply the student with a special card, through which he or she can order lunch for the day, usually via the school website or just with money (students can go to the cafeteria, choose something to their taste, and some teenagers even go to the supermarket). After all the soups and other healthy culinary delights, desserts and fruit are usually offered. The food cost is relatively low: in the elementary school, it's about 30 euros per month per child, and in the high school – about 1,5-1,8 euros per day. Parents usually give children snacks in a lunchbox (you can buy it in any supermarket), where they put something the child can eat during the breaks.


The nice thing is that most public schools do not have school uniforms, so children walk freely. They can wear jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, and the color does not matter. This also applies to teachers: our physics/chemistry teacher wears sneakers and Mickey Mouse hoodies, despite his not entirely young age and, generally, the seriousness of the subject he teaches. It is noteworthy that in some schools, there is no such thing as a changing room (both for outerwear and for dressing for physical education). That's why the children walk around all day in their sports uniforms when these classes are held. And on cold days you need outerwear in the classroom, because, as we remember, heating is not everywhere in Portugal. But such days are rare, mainly when it's raining outside.

Summarizing the above, the educational process is built primarily on the parity of students and teachers, trust and goodwill, and the absence of strict subordination. Everyone tries to comfort children, so they go to school with pleasure, not as if they go to jail. Depending on the grade and school, lessons start from 08.30 to 09.00 (the higher the grade, the earlier the start) and end around 17.00 for kids, while teenagers have different schedules, with lessons ending before lunch and before 18.00 on some days. The high school usually has a card pass system (those are the ones where you can put money and order lunches). They are not needed in elementary school, where parents bring and pick up their kids. The presence or absence of an electronic diary also depends on the particular school: somewhere, it fully describes the progress (or shortcomings) of the student, somewhere, it contains information only about the schedule, the interim certification, and absences, and some schools do not have it at all.


Relationships with other children

Since Portugal is traditionally a country of immigrants, you can hardly feel like a black sheep; no one will be surprised by a newcomer who speaks an obscure language. The children are rather interested and try to be friends in whatever way they can. There are some mental differences to consider here: Southern culture favors talking loudly and a lot, gesticulating, as well as hugging and other tactile contacts. They can hug, stroke, and sometimes slap you; teachers are no exception. You just have to get used to it because the Portuguese are commonly artless and open-minded people who show their emotions unconcernedly. Teachers are terribly concerned if a child is isolated for some reason (for example, he or she simply does not want to hang around with everyone else but likes to draw during the break). In such cases, they interrogate parents, offer their services as a partner in the game, etc. It all looks very touching. The older child was playing table tennis with the librarian when the lesson was canceled because he didn't have a friend from his classmates. As in any school environment, there can be conflicts, especially between boys, but they have nothing to do with nationality, skin color, and other differences. I think Portuguese boys and girls look at newcomers with curiosity, sometimes with caution, but there is no aggression at all.


To summarize, the children like to go to school, despite the possible technical difficulties associated with a foreign language, strange meals, and other unfamiliar things. The school tries to create the most comfortable environment for all students, to ensure good communication and a friendly atmosphere. On the one hand, newcomers get extra attention and help, but on the other hand, they are not singled out, so they feel part of a large, often international, community. I'm sure you and your kids will succeed!

If you are still not in Portugal - we suggest you get a consultation with our specialist in the field of relocation, meet our great real estate agents, as well as get a lot of useful information from a selection of articles from our blog!