For years I have said that choosing the best kind of education in Spain for your children is one of the most important decisions you will make whether you are moving abroad or you are already living abroad. Should you opt for local state schools, private international schools or bilingual schools in Spain?
We all do what we believe is best for our children, yet how do we make the right choice regarding the best schools and types of education? Rules and regulations differ from our home country. In Spain, there are no league tables to advise us which are the best performing schools, although there are many regulatory bodies that can be consulted to conduct basic checks.
In our “education in Spain” articles you can read lots of advice and experiences that may help you to make up your own mind on what is best for your own child.
I am a firm believer that enrolling children in local Spanish school from an early age is a good option for most if not all young (ie. up to age 5 or 6) children. However, from experience, I know that once they are five or six years older, the process may not be as smooth. That said, older children have taken this path and have done so very successfully. Every child is different and our role as parents is to decide what we believe to be best for them.
Before sharing my findings and thoughts on bilingual schools in Spain, I’d like to share our Spanish education story so far with you …
From the year they turned three, both our children attended local state-run schools in Spain. I stand corrected, Joshua actually spent a year in a local French school, age three!
Our children never fail to amaze me. They are so resilient and adaptable.
Their Spanish school experience, however, was very different during their first years. Joshua fitted in and adapted from day one. He spent one year at a local village school in Arenas near Velez Malaga and then stayed at CEIP San Sebastián in Mijas Pueblo from age five to twelve. During my final meeting with his tutor, when I shared my thought about the local secondary school or a private bilingual school, I was told Joshua will do well, whatever school you decide to send him to”. She knew him well!
Articles to read:
Francesca, on the other hand, had a rather more disruptive and emotional start. It was painful for many. Painful for us as we saw our quiet, “angelic” daughter scream and cry at the start of every term for the first few years. Painful for whichever school patio monitor who was punched and kicked by this fragile looking small child who transformed into a maniac as soon as she was sent through the school gates. We soon learnt that this performance ended as soon as she entered the school building. She was calm in the classroom, well most of the time.
As much as it tore me apart to see her like that, I knew in my heart that we were doing the right thing.
Articles to read:
Jump forward eight years and aged eleven, our strong-willed, independent, caring and intelligent daughter had developed strong roots and was ready to spread her wings. She was ready to make a big change in her life and follow in her brother’s footsteps … in her own individual way, of course!
We are extremely happy with our decision to put both children into Spanish state education, in local a village school, from an early age.
We can confidently say that as a result of our decision to put the children in the local village school:
- they are fully bilingual in English and Spanish
- they are open-minded and caring individuals
- they are knowledgeable about the importance of community values
- they can switch speaking between the local Andaluz dialect and clear Castellano
- they are fully integrated into the local community
- they have a good knowledge of Spanish geography
- they have a profound ability to effectively communicate with people of all ages, backgrounds and social status
- they display creativity and a passion for learning
However, as happy as we were with our children’s Spanish state education, we decided it was time for a change. We wanted our children to be educated in their mother tongue, in English, as well as their adopted Spanish. We were looking for bilingual education.
The Truth about Bilingual Schools in Spain (in our opinion)
Before sharing my thoughts and findings with you, I’d like to clarify what I understand as “bilingual education”.
“I believe that a school that advertises itself as “bilingual” should offer an equal number of subjects in each language.ie. In our case, half of the subjects in English, and the other half in Spanish. I think the teachers, if not native, should demonstrate an advanced level of the language, both written and spoken.”
When researching secondary options for our children, I struggled to find schools offering what I believed to be “bilingual” education. Most “bilingual” schools simply offered a couple of subjects that were taught in English. The majority of schools seemed to offer a British curriculum which was not what we wanted.
In order to research the matter further, I invited parents to answer a simple questionnaire about their experiences with “bilingual schools in Spain”:
This is what I said …
“Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience of bilingual (English/Spanish) education in Spain. My aim is to provide an accurate image of the current state of “bilingual” schools in Spain.
I do not intend to make any school look good or bad. I simply plan to give a true picture, based on experiences from parents and teachers.
I have just made the decision to pay for my son to attend fully bilingual private secondary education as I do not feel the state schools offer an acceptable level.
I am of the belief that the teachers providing classes, in English, in state schools, need more training and a higher level of English to better carry out their roles.
Hence this research … My current beliefs may not reflect the true picture. So, before writing the post on our family blog www.familylifeinspain.com , I’d like input from others.”
Here are a few comments and suggestions made by the parents, in response to my open questions:
Q1. How happy are you with the level of English of the teachers giving the classes?
“We’ve been really lucky, the level of English of the teachers at my daughters’ school is fantastic, (almost) native. And they are really good at teaching! And I’m not talking about learning hundreds of (useless) vocabulary lists. My daughters (7 and 9) can have short conversations in English, enjoy watching English TV and have also started reading in English. However, we know it’s not the same in other schools in the same town.”
“Only Catalans can teach English in public schools, the level is really low, not one child in 5 or 6 form can say a word of English to me. My kids are appalled by the mistakes the teachers make in class.”
“I was one of two teachers at the school who had formally studied bilingual education. The rest had studied English and primary teaching.”
“My kids attend a semi-private school (colegio concertado) but they follow the Comunidad de Madrid curriculum. I think the schools shouldn’t be called bilingual because the percentage of classes is not 50/50 and also they don’t actually produce bilingual children. Some children do acquire good language skills but usually because of the support they receive outside the school”
“Based on 2 different schools that we left! The first in Torremolinos is supposedly a completely bilingual school at ESO level, however we were told they were not sufficiently qualified to do the Bachillerato classes in English – if that’s the case then I don’t believe they would be capable of doing any classes adequately in English. The second was our last school in Benalmadena, it was ordered to offer bilingual education at which point all the teachers signed a petition saying they wouldn’t/couldn’t do it – the town hall backed down and allowed them to start with just 25% in English and made the appropriate allowances. The repeat-rate is sky high, so clearly something is going badly wrong!”
Q2: How do you think Spain can improve its Bilingual Education?
Teaching English at school with (almost) native teachers is important. – Methodology plays an important role too. Some methodologies are obsolete and yet still used by many (most?) teachers. Too many kids are unable to say or write a simple sentence after 6 years of English…
By having native English teachers teaching the language.
Having teachers of both nationalities speaking their own language only!
Lower the prices in the private schools or raise the level of English spoken by Spanish teachers in the state schools.
By bringing in native-speaking teachers, begin at infant level and not enforce it on a school that is not appropriately equipped. Good education 100% in Spanish is far better than shoddy teaching because the teacher only speaks intermediate English.
Giving more support and better qualification and training to their teachers,.
Start in pre-school. Native English speaking assistants and teachers.
Parents who want bilingual education are obliged to go to a private school
As you can see from the sample answers above, my own research into local schools, in the Malaga area, highlighted what I had already been lead to believe by other parents and friends working in the education sector:
- the level of English of teachers in the many “bilingual” schools in Spain leaves a lot to be desired
- there is a need for more qualified and/or native teachers
- the term “bilingual school” is used too loosely, more control is required
- it is pretty much pot luck as to what level of English is offered, based on the teacher you have
Needless to say, this does not make our role as a parent any easier when choosing the best school for our children!
This article from El Pais in English highlights some interesting facts that may explain some of these differences and nuances. Some of the statements and facts are quite frankly shocking …
“The boom in public bilingual centres in Spain has been remarkable. In the 2010-2011 period, 240,154 students were studying in a bilingual program in one of Spain’s regions (except Catalonia, which does not provide data). In the 2016-2017 period, that figure had jumped 360% to 1.1 million, according to an EL PAÍS study of data from the Education Ministry. Some 95% of Spanish students at bilingual schools have chosen to be taught in English.”
Regional differences in bilingual education
“There are notable differences between bilingual education in each of Spain’s regions, especially when it comes to the English skills required of teachers. In Asturias, where more students study in English than any other region (52.3% in elementary school and 33.7% in high school), teachers only need to have an intermediate level (B2). The same is true in Andalusia, where 30.5% of elementary school students and 28.6% of high school students study in English. In Madrid however, where 43.8% of primary school students and 27.6% of secondary students take classes in English, teachers must have an advanced level of English (C1).
The popularity of bilingual schools has risen so dramatically that many regions have been unable to keep up with demand. In Andalusia, for instance, “there are not enough teachers qualified to speak well,” says Christian Abello, professor of English studies at the University of Seville. After the bilingual program was launched in 2004, the Andalusian regional government allowed teachers with a low intermediate level of English (B1) to teach classes in the first few years, says José Antonio Romero, coordinator of the bilingual program at the public school Miguel Servert in Seville.
“We began without qualified teachers, and CLIL training – the European methodology to learn a new language through other subjects such as mathematics – is voluntary. The regional government did not supervise the teachers’ progress,” he adds.”
The British Council have been involved in attempting to improve the level of education in Spain offered in English …
“We have been working since 1996 with the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training to support the implementation, development and evaluation of bilingual and bicultural education throughout Spain. This “Bilingual Project” has been pioneering for both Spain and Europe, and has inspired other governments and education authorities to develop multilingual education and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) projects in their schools.
The British Council is proud of our legacy in Spain promoting, developing and supporting bilingual education. Our priorities are to work with National and Regional Authorities in Spain to establish best practice in teaching and learning in bilingual schools.”