Our experience with schooling in Andalusia, Spain

Classroom
Picture of my son’s classroom from the local paper. Source.

I thought I’d use this post to talk about our experience with schooling in Andalusia, Spain.  Before I do, however, I’d like to throw out a word of perspective.

This is merely a reflection on our experience and my specific interpretation of things at our neighborhood primary school.  It is not meant to be representative of all schooling in Spain.  Heck, if you were to query some of the other expat families attending the same school, they would probably have a different take as well.

We’ve also only passed the first trimester of the first year (about 4 months in).

Background

As you may recall, one of the main objectives of our move to Spain was to really solidify the language within our kids.  This was goal #1 and any other academic outcomes were secondary.  Our boys had a bit of a head start in that they were in a dual-language immersion program (Spanish/English) from Kindergarten to 2nd grade in our hometown in the States.

Research

Over the winter break, I received an inordinate amount of emails from folks asking about specifics.  About a year and a half ago, I was in the same boat and looking for all the information I could get.  The problem was, there wasn’t much.

I read as much as I could find about Spanish public schools.  And private schools.  And international schools.  And semi-private schools called concertados.  I posted to all kinds of forums and tried to get some sort of consensus on what type of school would be “best” for my boys.

In the end, there was no consensus and I drew increasingly frustrated over my lack of information and progress.  I then made what, in hindsight, was my best decision (even though at the time it felt irresponsible).  I went from trying to target a school to first simply targeting the town and neighborhood where we wanted to live.

Where Did We End Up?

Our boys are attending the local, public school in our neighborhood of Granada, Spain.  This was on purpose.  We could have sent them to an International School but that was pretty quickly dropped from consideration once we learned that 50% of the classes were taught in English.

What is it like – Academically?

Overall, we are very pleased with the school.  Like most things, there are parts that are great and others that are not-so-great.  I’ll try to elaborate.

The schooling here is very traditional, if not old fashioned.  The classes are lecture-like.  The teacher stays at the front of the classroom and lectures on the topic at hand and the students follow along in their subject books or worksheets.  Everyone is taught the same curriculum and at the same pace, regardless of ability or level.

The level that is taught at is typically pretty high.  Without trying to sound boastful, this has worked well for our boys as they have the ability to keep up in this type of classroom setting and has been a good challenge for them.  I’ve seen them get bored in their classroom back in the States where I felt they sometimes “taught to the mean”.

Anecdotally, I’ve met a couple of families with kids with learning difficulties (dyslexia for example) and know they struggled in this type of classroom.

Our twins are in separate 4th grade classes and are grouped with the same kids each day (each class limited to 18 students).  One of their biggest complaints is that they just sit there with very little opportunity to move around for basically the entire school day (other than recess).  The kids stay put and the teachers rotate classrooms.  Even “specials” like Art and Music are taught in the home classroom.  In our school back in the States, they seemed better about engaging the kids differently – often in smaller groups or stations within the classroom.

The morning walk to school.
The morning walk to school.

One thing I like is that the curriculum appears to be set by the Andalusian administration.  This means that at the beginning of the year, we received the ‘approved’ books that would be used for the core subjects.  This made it easy to figure out what they would be covering in math this year, for example.  I suspect every public 4th grade class in southern Spain more or less follows the same curriculum.

Another thing to note is that grades are based on birth year, not some other arbitrary cut-off like a September birth month as it is in the States.  That means our twins (Fall 2005 birthday) went from being the oldest 2nd graders in their class last year to being one of the youngest 4th graders in their class here in Spain.  At first it was a bit of a concern, but the curriculum (mostly math) has been a good challenge for them.  They are largely caught up despite starting the year behind and has been a nice boost to their confidence.

What is it like – Culturally?

There are also cultural considerations.  For example, the teacher/student relationship is very casual.  Teachers are referred to by their first name and remain with the same class for two years straight.  This means the teachers for our boys’ 4th grade classes are the same teachers that taught this same group last year while they were in 3rd grade.

We love certain aspects of this.  Lots of hugs are doled out when needed.  Kids are showered with affection and besitos (little kisses) on their birthday and to celebrate other milestones.  The teachers are also intimately aware of each child’s personality and know who they can sit together and who they best shouldn’t, etc.

My perceived downside to this is naughty kids seem like they can push the envelope a little more.  I volunteer in my boys’ classrooms once a week and it can be very hard to ‘reel in’ distracted kids because it seems to me they have a lack of respect for the teacher.  I equate it to how my boys may be more apt to behave poorly around me than they would around a neighbor, primarily because of that familiarity.

Another thing that our boys have had to get used to is the level of “yelling” by teachers to the students.  It isn’t uncommon for the teachers to raise their voice in class.  Again, I think this is a cultural phenomenon and is one way the teachers think they need to get their message across – by using a loud voice and somewhat empty threats :).

This was really a sticking point early on:  “Dad, I get tired of the yelling”.  This complaint has died down considerably recently and I think our boys have just gotten used to it.  I’ve told them to try not to worry about and to let it slide off their backs (assuming they aren’t the ones doing something to draw the ire of the teacher, of course).

Clowning around with friends after their holiday play about Christmas past, present, and future.
Clowning around with friends after their holiday play about Christmas past, present, and future.

Overall, the local kids have been really sweet and welcoming to our boys (their parents have as well).  I think having some ability to speak Spanish going in helped with this.  Our goal for the first year wasn’t to get the best education, but more for developing the ‘soft’ skills of learning the language, making new friends, and trying to incorporate themselves the best they could.  I think having some “new blood” in the classroom has helped everyone involved.

Bottom Line

Schooling was by far and away the biggest source of angst for our entire family going into this adventure.  At the onset, tears were often shed and schooling was definitely a bigger deal then than it feels like now.  It didn’t seem to be over any one thing in particular, but rather just the anxiety associated with all the new experiences and stresses that come along with going to a new school.  Not to mention everything being in another tongue.  Have you ever tried listening to a foreign language all day long?  The brain gets really tired.

I don’t want to paint the schooling here with too broad of a brush so I’ll just leave it here:  Knowing what I do now, I’d do it the same all over again.  For our time here, the school has been great and more than acceptable.  Our boys language skills have gone through the roof and they have made some really good friends.

Your Thoughts?

For those of you who have read this far, I’m impressed.  I suspect it is because you are considering moving abroad with your family and the question of school has come up.  My suggestion would be to ask yourself this:  What is it that I most want my kids to get out of school?  Considerations include: language ability, absolute best education, budget, total time abroad, location from home, special accommodations for disability, …

Once you can answer this question, it will become increasingly easier to find a school that will meet your primary need.  Because let’s face it, you’re not going to find a school that is perfect.

To avoid this post becoming completely unruly, I’m planning a future post that will review a typical day, hours (of course schooling here is more on “Spanish time”), homework, extracurriculars, etc.  If you have any specific questions that you’d like to see addressed, please leave a comment.

53 thoughts on “Our experience with schooling in Andalusia, Spain”

    1. All the information shared here has been a tremendous help to us as we think about moving to Spain; me, my wife and two boys ages 13 and 14. Thanks! Rolando

  1. This is great to hear. We have considered going expat for a year and doing local schooling (public or private depending on what’s the better/more affordable option) or homeschooling. We have chickened out so far (that’s the angst!). The oldest will be entering 5th grade in the fall, and I’m afraid to uproot them at any older age.

    I have a theory though that kids will turn out okay under just about any educational conditions as long as they have supportive parents and a good home life. We have a de facto multilingual school here (probably 40% hispanic, 50% some other minority and maybe 10% white on a good day). During afterschool pick up, I’m hearing SE asian languages, lots of Spanish, Farsi or arabic (or both). I have a post sitting in draft form in the hopper right now on “why we are okay choosing a “crappy” school” since it is crappy based on test scores, but pretty freaking awesome if you want a multicultural school. The kids are performing at the 90-99th percentile on state and national standardized tests, so the experience hasn’t screwed them up too bad. 🙂

    1. I agree with your theory that with parent’s support, kids will turn out fine.

      I didn’t mention in the post the extra work we’ve been doing to teach our boys cursive. They didn’t learn it back home before we left and the Spaniards at this age all have beautiful scripted handwriting and have been using cursive for what is probably a couple years now. So, we had to take that on ourselves outside of class – mainly so our boys could know how to read it!

      1. Cursive. That was somehow turned into a political football here in NC. They got rid of it in the last few years then conservatives pushed to get it back into the curriculum. Why my kids are spending time learning cursive instead of learning how to touch type 100 wpm baffles me.

      2. hey Jed!
        On the subject of cursive. Our daughter enthusiastically learned cursive in Spain and was told to unlearn it as soon as we returned to Australia – so disappointing. Our son on the other hand refused to write in cursive while in Spain but returned to Australia and had to catch up with his class who had learned it in Year 4 while he was away. Oh boy- so confusing but ultimately I am amazed at how adaptable my kids are. And by the way, I completely relate to your observations of school. Our kids learnt soo much and had fun too but they both complained about the yelling, the naughty kids and the sitting all day.

      3. Wow, I’m finding tons of more great info in the comments! This is great info to have as we prepare for our move this summer. Do you happen to know what grade level cursive is taught at? I can buy my kids some workbooks for the summer, but I’m not sure if my current Kindergartener (who will attend 2nd grade in Spain) should be working on it as well.

        1. Hi Katie, I’m not sure exactly when they start but it is definitely before 4th as they are pretty proficient by that grade. I’d guess 2nd or 3rd. We found sites like this one to be helpful in that we could customize the exercises that they could practice in cursive (including their name, etc).

            1. Hi Kathy and Jed,

              We started the cursive as well. It’s a huge hit at the right age.

              We’re moving to Spain this summer as well. I’ve been using this site for just about everything. Where are you all going? We’re arriving in Sevilla in July. Any chance you’re going the same place? I’ve got a 1st grade girl and a 4 yo boy.

              1. No, we are moving to a small city in the Castilla-La Mancha region. Sevilla was actually a close second in deciding where to go, but I wasn’t sure we could handle the summer and September heat! Do you have a blog set up? It would be great to follow you. Jed inspired me to blog about our journey to help others who want to attempt something similar.

  2. I’m not even a parent, and l read the whole thing :-). I was curious to see what your verdict would be to schooling the old time way. Kids are like sponges, they soak it all in, and they somehow fit. My classes were like that of course growing up. The teachers rotated, but their threats were not empty..oh no, not at all! They could dole out punishment and beatings. You also had the same teachers for a longer time. A lot of parents treat kids like eggs, fresh ones that break easily, when they are really hard boiled eggs. Just throw them in there and don’t tell them they can’t do it. They will do you proud. It worked for all of us kids growing up who moved to the U.S etc. Good post, and l’m not surprised your kids fit in, having met them. They are very nice sponges.. 🙂

    1. Our school turns 100 years old this year and something tells me there used to be both raised voices and old fashioned punishment at this school back in the day. I think everyone is glad the beatings have gone the way of the dodo bird.

      We prescribe to your “throw them out there and don’t tell them they can’t do it” line of thinking – it works wonders. Very kind words from you as well, Kemkem. Thank you.

  3. I really enjoy reading ALL your stories/adventures! This school one was really good. As I’ve followed your post I’ve been really curious how you manage school & travel. Your boys are very lucky to be able to have this experience.

    1. Yeah, we’ve primarily only been traveling during one of our many generous days off from school (around the holidays, I think it was about 3 weeks). We have some upcoming trips planned where we’ll pull them out of school for a day or two, but nothing really beyond that. We feel it’s important they are also part of the class and try not to disturb their studies too much.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Ev. It’s good to hear from you.

  4. I liked the comment by Justin about multi national and multiracial schools, whose rankings possibly aren’t the highest. From other’s experience in schools such as these, it appears the students lose nothing and and gain much about the world.

    1. Thanks, Comma! I’m going to release my latest article on “why we chose the worst school in the district” on Monday morning. I’m linking to this article on Bucking the Trend, and hopefully Jed will be okay with me posting a link to my article here.

  5. Hi Jed,
    My family is planning to spend next school year in Granada. We’ve placed a deposit on a rental in Albaicin and the owner has agree to help us with registration for Colegio Gomez Moreno. But of course there are many more things to work out before next fall and we have lots of questions.

    Could I contact you or your wife by email?

    Ellen

  6. Great article Jed! I can see where this would have been a big point of stress in the move! Enjoy hearing your perspective on all aspects of your adventure!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kelly! It’s been an adventure for sure. We’re finally hitting our groove and have opted to extend our stay one more year (through at least summer 2016).

  7. Fascinating stuff especially as I am currently working on enrolling my daughter for September. I’ve linked to this post, since as you say there isn’t a great deal of expat feedback available. I second your choice of local state school since they can get plenty of English from us parents. Your boys must have had a really good grounding in Spanish to jump a year like that. I’ll be eagerly awaiting your follow-up post.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Georgia. Whereabouts are you in Spain? I had a glance over at your site and didn’t catch it. I enjoyed reading about your experiences (and could relate to a lot of it). Good luck with the enrollment. It’ll work out. And if it doesn’t, you can always try another school! I see it happen quite a bit here with the local parents.

      1. We’re in Andalusia, like you, but on the coast. Do you mean change school once term has begun? As it is, I don’t think there’s much difference between the local schools which definitely makes applying less of a big deal. But it’s always a big deal when your first kid goes to school, I suppose! And more so when you don’t speak the language well.

  8. Thanks for this great post. I moved to Catalunya last July and hearing about the school system in Spain (albeit a very different part) from American parents’ perspective was so interesting. It’s given me a bit more of a framework to look at interactions of parents here with their kids, teachers and schools. Hope you guys are having a great time! Saludos de Catalunya!

  9. I am a high school Spanish teacher and my husband and I are planning to move to Spain in 5 years with our 2 boys now ages 6 and 8. We plan to live in Malaga for one year with the main goal of exposing our boys to another culture and helping them become fluent in Spanish. Your post regarding what to expect in school was very helpful.
    When your boys arrived in Spain did they speak any Spanish?
    How long did it take for them to feel comfortable with the language?
    Were they given any extra help with the language?
    Thank you so much for your blog. I know I will be asking you more later.

    1. Hi Kathy. Yes, our boys were in a language immersion school from K-2 prior to arriving in Spain so that certainly helped. I’d say it took them a couple months to get used to the dialect and speed at which they speak here in southern Spain. After those couple of months though, they were good-to-go and are now my walking translation dictionaries.

  10. Thank you so much Jed! I just read this out loud to my husband and we felt so validated hearing your concerns you had. Schooling for our 6 and 8 year old next year is our biggest concern about moving to Spain (we leave in August). I’m pushing for public school and my husband is so worried that it will be too hard on the kids and wants to go with an international school.

    We weren’t even sure if, as Americans, we could even enroll our children in public school since we aren’t paying European taxes. We have only read about other Europeans successfully doing it. Once you got to Spain how did you actually enroll them? Where did you go? Did you have any say in which elementary school you wanted them to attend? Does the Spanish system place them in a school based on your address?

    Our kids have taken Spanish as an extracurricular class after school a few days a week. Do you think they will ‘drown’ if we fully immerse them next year? I know it will be a shock and their learning will lag for the year but, like you, I really really really want language acquisition to be the priority for the year.

    Thanks so much for this blog!!!!

    1. Once you have a residence visa in Spain you should be able to send your kids to public school. After first unsuccessfully trying to target a school, I targeted where we wanted to live and backed into the school that way. Depending on where you end up, there will be a couple to choose from and you are not required to send them into the school for your “footprint” as is often the case in the U.S. You can send them to any school you choose assuming they have room.

      In our town, they take “reservations” for the school in March and then actual enrollment occurs in June. I know a couple of expat families that showed up in Sept before school started and were able to get their kids placed last minute, so I wouldn’t sweat it too much if you don’t have a reservation (especially if you don’t have everything arranged as early as March).

      If picking up the language is high on your list my unfiltered opinion is that you should send them to full immersion (unless there are learning disabilities or other considerations in play for your kids). Yes, it will be more uncomfortable for them at the start and there may be tears, but they will pick up the language quite quickly.

      Anecdotally, we have friends that put their kids in our school with very little Spanish language background and after the first 2-3 months, they came out understanding darn near everything and being able to speak basically and able to get their point across. Once that base is set, they’ll just blossom from there. After that first trimester or so, there will be very little lag. We have non-Spanish friends that arrived nearly 2 years ago and their child is in a 50% English/Spanish International school and his Spanish lags significantly behind our public school counterparts that have been immersed for a fraction of the time. I think this is largely because all of his Spanish friends only speak to him in English.

      Of course, your results may vary 🙂

  11. A couple of comments…first of all, I found it interesting that it is lecture-based. Also, it surprised me that the teachers were called by their first names and there is a casual atmosphere. I wouldn’t have guessed that there would be a formal presentation to the lessons within such a casual classroom. As far as yelling goes, I don’t think that that is too different from US schools although I am not there with you so maybe it is “over the top.” Glad that you’d do it all over again, and you picked a public school. I am a proponent of public education as you might have guessed. Also, it doesn’t surprise me that the boys have gotten used to it all. Textbook culture shock and rebound.

  12. We found our experience to be very similar to yours. Thanks for sharing this and I plan to reshare as well. We are so excited to be back in Spain and the kids are thrilled to be back with their friends too.

    1. ¡Bienvenidos, de nuevo, a España! Sounds like the schooling was “sufficient” enough to send your kids back into it for another academic year as well, eh Heidi?

  13. Looks like things haven’t changed much since I was in el cole in Barcelona in the late 60s – mid 70s. All instruction was lecture based in the same classroom and I remember the yelling from the teachers. One thing I wish all schools in the US would do is start teaching foreign languages in kindergarten…that’s when I began learning French and English and no, it wasn’t confusing. When my family moved to the U.S. permanently and I got used to the American accent, I found school was pretty easy by comparison. Maybe it’s because more stuff had been covered in Spain due to compulsory education ending at age 16. Anyhow, I did very well through high school in the US, got into my first choice college, and then a fellowship for grad school. ¡Buena suerte a todos y que sigáis pasándolo bien!

    1. Hi Flaca. Actually, I’ve heard that a few of Barcelona’s public schools have made some of the greatest strides to more progressive teaching methods. I think some of our school’s administration is in contact with a few leaders there and are trying to mimic and bring that change of culture to our neck of the woods. I doubt it will happen quickly, but appreciate them taking on the challenge.

      I agree with you. Kindergarten is the best time to learn a new language(s) because it really requires very little effort by the student. Their brains are already wired to quickly learn new words/pronunciation, etc. I feel fortunate that we were able to take advantage of our public school’s offering of English/Spanish “dual language immersion” as soon as our boys started school several years ago and will have the opportunity to continue it through high school. It’s popping up in some areas, but certainly isn’t yet the norm.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment.

  14. Hola! I read your whole article and I found it so interesting. We currently live in the states and are planning a long term trip to Granada. I would love to live there for a year and have my children learn Spanish via full immersion. The question I have is with visa documents. How did you go about getting a residence visa? Neither my husband nor I are from Spain.
    Thank you.

    Katie

  15. Hi Jed!
    Just found your blog as my family is planning on a move to Spain by July 2018 (we’re planners over here). My son is in a Spanish Immersion school here in Nashville, so we’re excited to build upon his language skills. I was curious about the actual school day–the logistics of lunch etc.
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Jade. You’re proving one can never start prepping too early for such an adventure, ha! I was planning on a follow-up post with such details, but just haven’t got there yet. Here it is in a nutshell. Again, these are specifics to our institution and details will vary from school-to-school but I’d bet most are similar.

      Our elementary starts at 9am and goes until 2pm. The six class periods change every 45 minutes with a half-hour recreo (recess) at 11:15am. Because lunch is the biggest meal and very much served at a later time in this country, our school’s cafeteria is optional and begins after school is out at 2pm. To help tide the kids over to that hour, everyone brings a light snack that they eat during recess. A PB&J sandwich or bocadillo with chorizo/salami usually does the trick.

      Because lunch is optional, there is an extra cost but we like it because it not only pays for the food, but also “monitors” that watch the kids on the playground/patio after they are done eating and exit the cafeteria. It’s basically like a mini after-school program that is available until 4pm (although without organized activities – really just free play).

      Our school also offers some after-school activities that meet 1-2 times a week at 4pm (after the lunch period). These vary between other physical activities (like basketball, rollerblading, dance, etc) or more educational activities (like computer lab, science experiments, creative art).

  16. Please can anyone tell me what the legal age is for a child to start school in Andalusia. My granddaughter is just two and I have been told it is three years old when they have to go to school here. Concerned grandmother.

  17. Great article! Thanks for the insight. I have a question regarding ‘alternative schooling’ in Andalucia. My husband and I are Argentinian expats living in California, which means my kids (ages 16 and 12) are fluent in Spanish and English. Here, in California, they both attended a ‘Constructivist’ charter school. The education there is project based and it really engages students in the learning process. My son is now studying abroad in Seville. He is enrolled in a public school and yes, it is very old fashion, lecture-based. My son is doing ok, but it is (in my opinion) not the best type of education. Now we are planing to move to Andalucia (not really sure where) and I would love to find alternatives to the public education setting. Any pointers? Thanks!

    1. Hi Mara. Of course there are several private schools and some International schools all over Andalusia that teach to American or English curriculum but I can’t speak to how progressive they may be (or not) in terms of teaching methods. There is one somewhat well known private school in Granada but know it is closer to traditional teaching that we experienced in the public school than not. I can’t really speak beyond that. I suggest doing some online research and consider reaching out to some schools to see if you can get a read on that kind of thing from afar. I do think some of the more progressive schooling and teaching that goes on in Spain may be more in the north (i.e. Barcelona) but that is purely anecdotal.

  18. Hi! Great article!! I am traveling (for the 3rd time) with my 2 daughters for the month of June to Granda and we’d love to enroll them in a part time summer program. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Katherine. I don’t have a lot of good suggestions as we don’t have any direct experience for such things in June. Public schools are still in session through late June so typical summer camps haven’t yet started. You may consider calling some language schools (there are a ton in Granada) to see if they could do something with your kids.

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