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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.