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Schools in SpainAll schools are not equal, international or not. What you can expect (or not) from this sunny, beautiful place.

Children attending local state schools are soon swept into real Spain. Parents, however, face a few more challenges, particularly in getting to grips with the culture and the hours that are kept (for a start, most struggle with the idea that Mediterranean children go to bed so late).

The easiest way to learn Spanish and integrate is obviously to marry a local. The next best thing is to have children in local school. They will soon be fluent speakers and introducing you to their Spanish homework, their friends´ families and life in general.

Education in Spain is compulsory from the age of 6 but most children will start in Infantil the September of the calendar year in which they turn 3 years old. At 6 years old the children progress from Infantil (or enrol for the first time to Primaria). Expat families who opt for state schools often speak highly of the levels of personal attention, discipline, and general educational standards - at least at infant and primary levels.

At secondary level things are more problematic unless you have grown up in the system and plan to go onto a Spanish university or place of work.  

It is harder for teenagers to pick up Spanish quickly and also cope with a new life and make friends. They frequently have too many other issues to contend with such as effects of bullying before they left home, distance from other family members back in UK and so on. 

Just as an illustration of the naivity of some expat parents here, one mother I met was flabbergasted to discover after signing up her daughters for state secondary education that a) the tuition was in Spanish, b) the curriculum was different to that in UK, and c) exams were not therefore going to be GCSEs. Some teens fail at school simply because they did not want to come here in the first place.  Having been brought here against their will, they rebel by refusing to even to listen to any Spanish.

More and more schools are therefore finding that they have to provide additional Spanish language support classes for the foreign pupils now enrolling in large numbers. Official figures published in January 2006 indicate that 19% of the population of Alicante province is foreign, with at least four towns on the Costa Blanca having more foreign residents that Spaniards. 

The population increases also have meant that many older school buildings are no longer adequate and you may find pupils working out of prefab huts or attending school in shifts as classrooms need to be used twice with, say, lower secondary working 0800 – 1400 and then going home in order for the upper secondary to re-use the same classrooms from 1500 - 2100.  Usually at secondary level, students start around 0800 and leave around 1500, with private studying to be done in the afternoons.

State Schools

Getting into the state education system

To enroll in the state education system here, parents must first sign on with a local town hall as resident in the area. If self-employed, parents must be paying contributions as self-employed workers into the Spanish social security system to obtain a local SIP card (equivalent to NHS card) to cover the medical needs, because the EU health card issued in the UK only lasts 6 months and covers emergency holiday treatment only- unless they are planning to take private health cover.

English speaking services may not be able to cover the specific special needs of a particular child, and families may well be referred to Spanish specialists. It can be costly for private health care and interpreters. If a family is setting up its own business and enrolling in the state system, they need to engage the services of a "Gestoria" - an agency dealing with all aspects of Spanish bureaucracy - to help them. There are usually several in each town and another expense to take into account.

Please bear in mind that the local state school is unlikely to have an English speaking receptionist, although most have an English speaking member of staff as English is taught from an early age in the Spanish national curriculum. If you don't speak Spanish, it is probably best to come on a recce, and visit the school to make an appointment face to face with an interpreter rather than try over the telephone.

The Spanish school hours are 9.00am - 5.00pm with a two/three hour break between 12.30 and 3.30pm pm for siesta 1 October - 31 May and 9.00 am - 1.00pm only during term dates in June and Sept. If you visit during the holidays there may be a summer club in operation and the office staff may be able to provide some information for you at that time and help you assess your child's ability to cope in Spanish.

At Infant and Primary levels, again, the school day here starts at 0900 and runs through until 1230 with a break around 1100 for a mid-morning snack which the children bring from home. Depending on the school, children may be sent home at 12.30 for the lunch/siesta break (Spaniards eat their main meal of the day around 1400) returning at 15.30 or so for the afternoon session which can run until 1700, or 1800 with after-school clubs.

Not all schools have a facility to provide lunchtime supervision and/or school lunches. This can be a problem for some expats who are working either to British hours or even in Spanish businesses, as the timetables do not always coincide to enable parents to collect children in the middle of the day. Locals do not have an issue with this as grandparents and others pitch in with any additional childcare that may be needed.

This is obviously not an option if you are here on your own without family support and can be a real headache if you are a lone parent or both partners need to work. Besides which, children only attend school for half days in the hotter months of June and September (usually 0900-1300) with summer holidays running from third week of June through to second week of September.

The summer holidays are long and hot. Some relief is offered though by summer schools either at fee paying schools or organised by the local Town Hall at one of the local state schools. Sometimes these are also available during the two-three week breaks for Christmas and Easter. There are no “half-terms”, but there are a number of national and local holidays to cover.

Children at state schools will not be required to wear uniform or even have a PE kit. Most youngsters will go to school in comfy jeans and trainers or other sporty gear.

In state schools, parents are expected to purchase materials and text books and teachers like to keep in close contact. By close contact, we mean that Spanish parents will go and chat to the teachers at least once a week and teachers may even call you at home to flag up a problem or congratulate a child on some excellent work. Parents are invited to social events to meet one another and attend classroom activities from time to time.

From the age of 6, English will be taught as a foreign language along with the local regional language/dialect (in our case Valenciano) in addition to Castillian Spanish.

Non-Catholic children may opt out of Religion classes. General education on other faiths is covered in “Conocimiento del Medio” class along with other issues regarding the “World About Us”, including general science, history and geography. Maths, PE, Art and Music are pretty much as one would expect. Schools vary as to the level of IT and other subjects on offer – some come as after-school clubs organised by PTAs.

English tuition in state schools is minimal and is taught by Spanish staff with basic training. For native English speakers, it is not adequate and/or frustrating and parents seek out English clubs or tutors for their children to maintain a good command of their own mother tongue.  

Providing one answer to all of this, the British Council and the Spanish Ministry of Education already have a joint project now operating in some 44 state primary schools across Spain to deliver a bi-lingual programme which includes subjects from both the Spanish and English National Curriculum. The British Council website can be checked for the latest details on this.

The selection of state schools is largely dictated by each town's catchment areas, so individuals need to consult the local schools and/or town hall about their range of options. Curiously, conventional wisdom seems to be left at the baggage check-in when people move down to Spain, and we have yet to meet any parents here who looked at facilities such as schools before deciding on their house purchase. 

Everyone, it seems, when zooming off to this new life of sun, sea and sangria, choses a dream house, then considers, somewhat belatedly, where to send children to school, find jobs and so on. Funny that, because we always thought that in UK (and elsewhere for that matter) most folk find work, then decide to relocate if need be, choosing a house near schools and other places of interest to them. It is most peculiar. 

Independent Schools

Fee-paying Spanish schools are not going to be a choice unless the child is already well integrated into local life. Private British or other international schools may offer expat families the curriculum they would like, but these schools do tend to favour wealthy Spaniards who prefer their children to have a broader education. As anywhere else, a British or international school offers desirable continuity if the stay here is to be short term. For long term expat children, however, Spanish language tuition can be rather minimal and they do not integrate as well as one might hope.

Special Education Needs

It may be difficult to find bi-lingual or international schools in your area that offer SEN at the level more demanding than ADHD, dyslexia etc. To put it bluntly some of the better schools in that category weed out what might be deemed potential “problem cases” and do not even take “potentially disruptive” or “slower pupils” beyond interview. Others are less scrupulous and in their own words "will take anybody if parents pay their bills"; consequently, they resemble poor comprehensives in deprived areas of the UK with a huge turnover of pupils and staff. That does sound negative but it would be inaccurate and a disservice to paint a brighter picture.

The Spanish state education system, however, does have good SEN provision (the terms are set out on the web in detail and in English under "Special Education within the Education System" under Spain National pages on the site european-agency.org). From what one can observe and hear anecdotally, local Spanish communities take good care of their SEN children, including offering workshops and trips for Down´s Syndrome children. But cover varies across the regions and it very much depends where a family settles and how good their Spanish is to navigate the system.

So as with everything else in Spain, dealing with SEN concerns largely remain a Do It Yourself Project. Very little is written down for you; it'a all word of mouth, face to face meetings, reinventing the wheel and doing the donkey work yourself.

A good example is the case of a particular 7 year old boy. By the end of the last academic year, his parents were growing increasing worried about his literacy skills in both English and Spanish.  Teachers at his Spanish state primary school were putting this down to the fact that he was speaking English at home and working in Spanish at school and his volatile behaviour, they said, was due to his being "foreign" and not feeling that he fitted in with the local children.

Colleages and the staff at Mar Azul (where he attended summer school in English) were asked for a second informal opinion.  They alerted the parents to possible learning difficulties and emotional issues and sent them off to see a retired British specialist in dyslexia near here.  Confirming that he did in fact have dyslexia, he now has private English sessions with the same specialist and is progressing in leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile PE staff suggested martial arts classes to assist with anger management and this is proving successful too.  He remains in Spanish state school, but after the parents presented the staff there with the findings, they finally acknowledged his difficulties  and he has extra support there now in language classes.  It remains to be seen how this works out in the longer term as you do have to keep your fingers on a Spanish pulse.

As a top-up to the Spanish NHS developmental checks, the parents are also having consultations with a British medical practice near here with referals to a British psychiatrist.  

Once the family homed in on the problem, things moved quickly and probably more quickly than is possible in a state school in UK. But clearly all of this has taken mucho personal initiative, time and effort.

Final Notes

Needless to say, the range of British and international schools is increasing with the expat population, but the standards and facilities at each one vary greatly. One headmaster we met at a long-established (1970s and tatty) British school we swear had been trained in Torquay by Basil Fawlty the day he was visited by the hotel inspectors.

The most important thing this author can say is to investigate and think very hard before making any move. Above all, don't take any of the crucial decisions on education for granted.

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