Lisbon’s schooling options
For parents considering an international move, one of the first and most crucial questions is, “How are the schools?” Happily for those mulling a move to Lisbon, the city boasts both solid public schools and an enviable selection of private schools with instruction in English, French and other major languages.
In Portugal, education is mandatory for all children ages six to 18, meaning that resident minors are entitled to enrol, free of charge, in one of the country’s public schools. (If this is a route you’re interested in pursuing, the Direcção Regional de Educação, or Regional Education Authority, can help point you in the right direction. Generally speaking, the cut-off date for enrolment in a Portuguese public school for the following academic year is 15 July, though the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an extra measure of flexibility and also children coming from a school abroad may enrol at any time). Schooling is conceived of slightly differently in Portugal than in other countries, with primary school, or Ensino Básico, divvied up into three “phase,” known as primeiro ciclo, running from Grades 1 to 4; segundo ciclo, which includes Grades 5 and 6; and terceiro ciclo, which goes from Grades 7 through 9. Then comes Ensino Secundário, or secondary education, which includes Grades 10 through 12.
While the public school system was hobbled by the Salazar dictatorship – when illiteracy rates were sky-high – Portugal has made great strides in recent decades in closing the achievement gap with other countries. In its 2020 educational policy report, the OECD said the country’s scores in reading, math, and science were “around the OECD average…maintaining considerable improvements in student performance across cycles.” The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, confirmed the improvements in the country’s educational system, saying that “Portugal is one of the few countries with a positive trajectory of improvement” in reading, math and science.
Still, given that instruction in Continental Portuguese might not be suitable for kids just arriving in the country from abroad, many if not most expat parents end up opting for a private school. That decision can prove a difficult one, considering just how many strong options there are in the greater Lisbon area. (The influx of foreigners over the past several years has led to a boom in international schools, though the coronavirus pandemic took a toll on some of the newer ones.) In addition to instruction in English or other major languages, private schools generally have smaller classroom sizes than their public counterparts. They also generally offer an array of extracurriculars that are not often found in Portugal’s public system.
Bear in mind that many private schools in Portugal have a rigorous enrolment process that often comprises standardized tests as well as interviews. While the pandemic has led to increased flexibility in enrolment procedures, it’s good to start weighing your options and get an early start on the application process.
Billed as Portugal’s “leading British international school,” St. Julian’s School has been setting the standard for private, English-language education in the country for nearly a century.
The nursery-through-British Year 13 school offers several different curriculums, as well as a Portuguese as a second language programme aimed at helping non-native speaking students gain fluency. With a sizeable student body numbering around 1,000, St. Julian’s has a proven track record in placing its alum in elite institutions of higher learning from around the globe: Recent graduates have been accepted to such prestigious institutions as Cambridge, Oxford, LSE and the University of Chicago. Like many other of Lisbon’s top private schools, St. Julian’s is located on the Portuguese Riviera. It’s housed on the grounds of a former vineyard in the seaside town of Carcavelos, halfway between Lisbon and Cascais.
Other top options in this area include St. Dominic’s, which has a reputation for being a down-to-earth version of the more upscale St. Julian’s. While the campus can’t compete with St. Julian’s privileged sea views, St. Dominic’s garners consistent kudos from its warm and genuinely caring faculty, who bend over backwards to serve the 650-strong student body. All instruction is in English, following the British national curriculum, and graduates obtain an IB diploma. Another nearby school that wins comparisons to St. Julian’s is the International Preparatory School, or IPS, which has been striking a balance between rigorous academics and creating a safe, caring environment since its founding in the Portuguese Riviera town of Alcabideche nearly 40 years ago. IPS offers the British national curriculum, with instruction in English, to its 250-strong student body. Because the school runs from nursery school through Year 6, IPS has become a de facto feeding school for St. Julian’s secondary school.
Those looking for more of a U.S. focus need look no further than the Carlucci American International School of Lisbon, which, confusingly, is located not in Lisbon but rather in nearby Sintra. The only State Department-recognised school in the area, Carlucci is particularly popular among the American community, although more than 50 nationalities are represented among its 700-strong student body. One of the newest offerings on Portugal’s education scene, TASIS Portugal International School, opened its doors in Sintra in 2020. Offering classes running from kindergarten through Year 9, the school’s growing student body of 250 includes children from over 40 nationalities. The highly successful curriculum is based on the Core Knowledge curriculum, with Singapore Math, Next Generation Science Standards, and the TASIS core, which includes coding, chess, violin, and yoga.
For parents planning to live in Lisbon proper, the prospect of a complicated daily commute to and from Sintra or the Portuguese Riviera can make options closer at hand look more appealing. The Redbridge School, a relatively new primary school in Lisbon’s Campo de Ourique neighbourhood, has emerged as a favourite among many of the city’s international transplants, for whom early fluency in multiple languages is a priority. The nursery school has three teachers, each a native speaker of French, English or Portuguese, and primary school families can choose between a bilingual French-Portuguese or English-Portuguese track. Most of the families live either in Campo de Ourique, where the Lycée Françaisis also located, or in nearby neighbourhoods such as Estrela, Lapa, Santos or Amoreiras.
Another very new option is the British School of Lisbon, which opened in a building on the Rua de São Paulo in Cais de Sodré that formerly held Portugal’s Mint in 2019. It is currently serving children from nursery through Year 6, with instruction in English following the English national curriculum.