As I tour with clients one of the most frequently asked questions is “So what are the schools like?”
It’s a very good question and a very important consideration when moving into the area with your children. Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field but I have brought up two children, a daughter and a son, who went through the Spanish system and this is our story.
Firstly, some background to provide a little context.
Beth and Jack’s mum died in February 2008 after a very short illness. We have a great supportive family in both the UK and Spain but the 3 of us decided that this was an opportunity for a fresh start and made the decision to at least consider moving to Spain.
We came over for a week at Easter to look at the possibility of going to private schools. A quick Google search will show you there are plenty to choose from in the area. We had interviews with several. Many of them have fine credentials and offer fantastic opportunities, both academically and otherwise. We came away with lots of information but we weren’t really inspired by any of them in particular. We also discovered they weren’t cheap.
We also considered Spanish schools. We had some experience of this. My younger sister had come through the system successfully and had gone on to university. Her situation was slightly different though. She was born in Spain and her father speaks good Spanish. She went to Spanish nursery, had Spanish friends and going to Spanish school was the natural next step. At this stage Beth was 13 and Jack was 9. Although both were doing well at school in the UK neither spoke a word of Spanish.
Despite this, we made the huge decision to move over here. As Usain Bolt was sprinting across the finishing line in Beijing, we were arriving at a more sedate pace in Sabinillas. Our fresh start began.
By then we had already made another important decision. Beth and Jack were going to a Spanish school. There were a couple of reasons why. The first was very practical. cost. We also reasoned that plenty of British kids were going through the system so Beth and Jack would not be alone. My sister had also made it to a university in the UK and we knew the system worked. So, they were enrolled into the system. Beth was starting in Year 2 (of 4) at IES Las Viñas (Senior School) and Jack in Year 5 (of 6) at the new school at Parque Infantil Maicandil (Junior School).
They were allocated a school by the system – the equivalent of a Spanish Post Code Lottery. Beth stayed in Las Viñas until college in Marbella which was determined by the subjects she was taking. As Jack was finishing in Maicandil, we moved to Estepona and so we needed Jack to be allocated a school in Estepona. Easier said than done! Apparently, some schools are regarded as much better than others and parents will do anything to move their children into another school. Ours was a legitimate move but we had to produce reams of paperwork including a Death Certificate to prove our case. A lady in the office that sorts school allocation explained that parents will feign addresses, divorce and even death to get children allocated to a particular school – hence all the paperwork. Just so you know…
A bit of preparation.
The Spanish school year starts at the end of September and we decided there were some very practical things we could do before term starts.
The first was really quite obvious. We found a retired English teacher who taught Spanish. We recruited him and he came to the house twice a week. The lessons were an hour long and he gave them homework. Now schooling in the summer was a bit of a shock to the kids and the thought of homework initially horrified them. However, the size of the task was dawning on them and they knuckled down. We reasoned that they weren’t going to learn much in a couple of months but they had to start somewhere.
The second practical thing we could do was to find some school friends for each of them. Ideally ones that were in the same class. None of us were really looking forward to the first day of term but if they had a friendly face to accompany them then that would at least help a little.
There are a couple of local forums and groups on social media so that’s a place to start.
In Jacks case, we received plenty of invites. We met both parents and children during August and September. There was a group of 4 or 5 boys who he started to meet. They were like minded and loved playing football. They were a year ahead of him in that they had started the previous year but they were the same age and would all be in the same class. Without realizing, they also provided an insight into school life and how difficult it would be to start with. They couldn’t provide a short cut but in Jack’s mind, he worked out that if they could do it, so could he. In that sense, they proved inspirational and I am forever grateful to them for it. After 15 years they have all gone their separate ways but they still keep in touch. I still see their parents. On a personal level, I am forever grateful for welcoming the 3 of us and for the help they provided. I’m not going to name check them but they know who they are.
Beth was a different situation. We made the same call out on social media but received very little response. To this day we don’t know why but there you go. We did meet one girl and her Mum for a coffee a few weeks before school started but they didn’t hit it off and to be honest we never saw her again!
So, when they started they had some very basic Spanish. Jack went in with a great deal of apprehension but with a group of mates. The second day was probably worse. We had tears beforehand but he bravely went through the gates. His new found friends were both supportive and kind, making the experience tolerable. We had a rubbish week but we got through it.
Beth started a few days after Jack. I was far more worried about her. We knew very little about the school and even less about anyone who went there.
We knew which year she was in but we didn’t know which class or where to go. There were lists published outside the main door with the information and we had to queue to find out where she had to go. Now, the Spanish don’t really do queues, so it was totally chaotic. It was also the noisiest place I’ve ever experienced. However, amongst the din one of the pupils came over and introduced herself. She was English and had been going to the school for two years. She wasn’t in Beth’s class but she would show her where to go, meet her for lunch and meet her at the end of the day. They remained friends for the next four years – until they both left school together.
And so it began.
The first thing we felt was that we needed another person to teach them Spanish. We needed someone who was fluent in Spanish and English, and who was familiar with the Spanish education system. We needed someone who could help with their homework. A real professional.
We came across (another) Beth. She was a godsend. She was strict but became a brilliant figure in the kids schooling. They went twice a week for two hours at a time. They were private lessons initially, but a couple of others joined in at times so the cost was reduced a little. Financially it was hard but this was probably my best single investment. As time progressed, we continued with this tuition until the end of their schooling. They went from learning the basics to writing poetry.
Homework – there’s loads of it!
The Spanish system of teaching was different from the UK system. My thoughts were, well, it’s their system and who am I to change it. So, we went with the flow. As my little team were going through their schooling, Spain (and most of the world) were enduring a financial crisis. I have no idea how this impacted the schools as I have nothing to compare to. What I do know is that there was very little interaction, experiments etc. The teaching was all bookwork and hours of homework. Hours and hours of homework. As far as I’m aware, that’s how it is today so be prepared. Old school.
Sink or Swim.
There is also very much a “sink or swim” attitude. The teachers will do what they can to get their students through the year. The results are determined by a combination of coursework and an end of year exam. Basically, if you pass you go up to the next year. If you don’t pass, you stay down a year. Harsh but there you go. Beth was very surprised on her first day to find another student with a beard in her class. She was only 13! He’s clearly been kept down a few times.
Even more extra work.
It’s fair to say that the higher up the education system you are the harder it gets. So, it was much harder for Beth in the first year. It did mean that she had to take the year again. As her Spanish improved, resitting the first year became much easier so she decided to take advantage of this. She completed an online course in English and obtained an English Language GCE. This made better use of her time.
Jack didn’t do this but I always encouraged him to read English books so that he always kept up with his English.
Mixing with Spanish Kids.
Something else I became aware of…. mixing with other Spanish kids is important. It is sometimes easier for the kids to find groups of their own kind. The Spanish mix with the Spanish, Brits with the Brits and so on. It’s quite natural but not always helpful.
Jack found it quite easy. He had his English mates but they all went to football practice and played alongside the Spanish lads. By mixing, Jack’s Spanish improved massively. It became a natural progression to talk about homework etc. His Spanish improved no end. Later on, he would visit the skatepark in Estepona. It became “his thing.” There he mixed with another group of lads. Again his Spanish improved. To this day he speaks Spanish like an Andalusian, which isn’t necessarily great, but he writes very well too.
Beth found it a little different. There were no obvious clubs for her to join so mixing wasn’t as simple. She did make friends though and the quicker she did, the better her Spanish became.
As an aside, they went through similar experiences at school and had the same tutor throughout. But whilst Jack has his Andalusian accent, by comparison Beth has a very correct, almost posh Spanish accent. As if she came from Madrid. We have no idea how that happened?
Making an effort.
As I stumble with my Spanish, it is apparent that if I make an effort, so the Spanish are both sympathetic and patient.
It is the same in school. Jack and Beth were both trying really hard but for the first few months scored zero in their tests. I was a little surprised that Beth was struggling in French. To my mind I thought that as she was doing well in a UK school in this subject and I thought the standard would be at least comparable in Spain. However, as she pointed out, she couldn’t tell when the Spanish stopped and the French started, which was a reasonable point. So this was a struggle too. But they persevered, didn’t get into trouble, made Spanish speaking friends and got through it. I went to the parent/teacher nights and the teachers could see we were all making an effort. It always helps to have the teachers and headmaster/mistress on our side.
Was it worth it?
It took them both about 2 years of very hard work before they treated “Spanish school” as “Regular school” and their results hit the levels they were previously at in the UK. Even then, we continued with the extra tuition until their final college exams.
They both gained a Spanish Baccalaureate. It was always the plan for them to go onto university. They both wanted to go to British Uni’s (their choice) and the Spanish Baccalaureate meant they both gained entry to their first-choice options. Clearly the S.B. was an important credential to the UK universities.
As I said at the beginning, I am not an expert in this field but this was our experience of Spanish schools.