The Truth About British Children in Spanish Schools

Published on 14/02/2011 in Kids in Spain

Schools and Education in Spain Guide

Schools and Education in SpainI teach English to Spanish children who attend Spanish state schools. I work in an after school club where children come for extra tuition, homework help etc. The Spanish system is very academic so it is not unusual for children to receive extra help for some if not most of the main subjects. They range in age from four to twelve and they begin studying English in school from aged six officially sometimes younger. The school which most of them attend has a significant amount of expat children but not an excessive amount. I estimate that in every class there are on average two British children.

Considering they start learning English at a reasonably young age compared to countries such as the UK their spoken English is generally very poor. For example, it is not unusual for me to ask an eleven year old “How old are you?” and they shrug their shoulders and look at me with a blank face. I am from the Home Counties and I have a very standard, neutral accent.

They realise that it is important to learn English, their parents remind them often enough. They are aware that the English language will increase their opportunities in the future. So, there is a positive attitude towards language learning with regards to English anyway, as opposed to French which many seem to consider a secondary, almost pointless subject.

Unfortunately, aside from my lesson time they have no opportunity to speak English. Often, their teacher’s teaching style does not allow it or the teacher’s own level of English is insufficient. I find it sad that the presence of native English speaking children is overlooked. In fact, they can be regarded as an annoyance as opposed to a learning tool in the classroom.

I was teaching the other day when one of the eleven year old children commented that at last the English teacher had banned the British children from the English lessons as they were an annoyance. I asked what he meant by annoying and he said that they keep chatting during the English lessons. I can only guess that they are bored so instead of using them as a learning tool almost like a teaching assistant to check pronunciation etc, the narrow minded teacher threw them out of the class.

I asked the children what they thought and they were happy to be rid of them. They then went on to criticise these children saying that they couldn't even speak Spanish properly. They commented that one had been in school for a year and that she pulled stupid faces and shook when the teachers spoke to her. I detected disdain for these British children as opposed to sympathy for their discomfort. Of course, all children can be cruel, often unintentionally. I then suggested that they put themselves in the shoes of these children i.e how would they like if tomorrow their parents decided to uproot them, take them to the UK and put them in a school in the UK. However, they really couldn't empathise and continued to express their bad feeling about these children. I won’t repeat all of their comments.

This got me thinking that something isn’t working here and what will be the outcome of all this? Can I go so far as to say that some children may be emotionally effected for life as a result of this? I wonder if their parents are even aware that their child’s Spanish is so limited that he or she squirms in their seat when spoken to.

What I also cannot understand is that everyone is so keen to learn English and paying me for lessons as though there weren’t any other English speakers around when ironically their most ideal teachers are sat alongside them in the classroom but there is something blocking this from happening. Who is to blame here? Or is it a case of both parties i.e the Spanish and the British not wanting to meet somewhere in the middle.

It cannot be denied that when children are young their ideas are moulded by their primary educators i.e their parents. Perhaps, the fact that their television in only in English and have very little concept of Spanish culture or social life is a huge barrier to their children being able to access school and everything that goes alongside it fully. How can they expect their children to slot into Spanish society? I think it is a lot more complex than they realise and it actually makes me think that those who put their children in the International system are kinder. I should point out here that my own children are in the Spanish state system!

Schools and Education in SpainSo, evidently it is not a simple case of putting your children in and hoping for the best. There are a lot of underlying issues that need to be brought to a head. I feel that some parents bury their heads in the sand and hope for the best telling themselves that their child seems happy enough going off to school in the morning. Have they thought that perhaps, the child is too frightened or embarrassed to complain!

For more information about children in schools in Spain you can read Susan's excellent ebook:  A Guide To Schools and Education in Spain.

Written by: Susan Pedalino

About the author:

Women In Spain

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caroline haroper said:
22 May 2011 @ 19:17

This is another typically biased article from Susan Aldridge

Sue said:
28 February 2011 @ 17:04

Our friend moved here when her daughter was almost 5, and 7 years later she and her daughter are bilingual. The daughter actually had a few problems with reading and writing English, so we helped her for a while, while her Mum was working.

Mark, why don't you start teaching your daughters some Spanish and see how well they manage? Young children do have the ability to pick up languages quickly - it's us pensioners who have problems!

mark said:
21 February 2011 @ 22:19

I have a question and wonder if those of you with experience might offer advice. We're thinking of moving to Andorra with our 4 and 6 year old daughters. I am worried that chucking such young girls in the deep end (as it were), placing them in a class where they can't speak to anyone or understand the teacher could be very frightening. What experience do people have of this? If there a more gentle approach that we can take?

foxbat said:
21 February 2011 @ 16:58

I have to wonder whether a lot of the problems English kids face in Spanish schools is because of their own selfish attitudes.

Kids in school in England generally have no idea of discipline or respect for their teachers or for their parents at home. Since the schools have no recourse to disciplining difficult or rebellious kids, they get away with it.

Little wonder then that the Spanish kids find this behavior unacceptable when the English kids bring those same rebellious attitudes into Spanish classrooms.

One has only to read through some of the posts on this and other forums to realise that the parents have little or no knowledge of Spanish language, customs and traditions (and regrettably of their own native language in a lot of cases, if the spelling and grammar is anything to go by).

If the kids don't have leadership at home its for damn sure they are not going to get it at school.


Lucy said:
18 February 2011 @ 12:02

I agree with the article. I am from Hampshire and have a neutral accent and am always being asked to help out Spanish children with their english since their teachers aren´t natives and have often just spent a month in Dublin or Edinburgh before classing themselves as english teachers. It´s not surprising that when you ask a spanish child something in english they don´t understand what you are saying, because their teacher can´t say it properly either. They are often very good at reading and writing in english as I think that is what the teachers focus on since it´s easier for them. I have often offered to help at my son´s school by going in to speak or read to the class and they turn me down. I think the english teachers feel threatened.

Kolet said:
17 February 2011 @ 10:33

The overlying attitude of ¨Them and Us¨is so evident in some of the above cases - this is the type of attitude that is crippling for lots of adult people never mind young children who have been taken from the comfort of their familiar surroundings - How can parents to do this to their children and then expect them to integrate if they themselves are conveying the opposite message on a daily basis. I agree that the transition process is difficult and requires a lot of support and understanding from parents, just the same as when children go through difficult patches in the U.K - however, if the parents or adults have an attitude of its them - not us, what do they expect ?- this is the type of distracting attitude (Distracting the attention from the real problem) that produces adults with a chip on their shoulder!!! Victims of society - which inow is shifted onto the responsibility of the Spanish one, even though the concious decision to make this huge unheavel in the family life is and has been taken by the acting adults?? Parents have a lot to answer for!!!! Imagine a Spanish person bringing their children to the U.K expecting the British system to acommodate thier lack of the english language - I don´t think it is likely to happen, seeing that one of the biggest problems in the U.K schooling system is in fact a language problem and little is done to remedy it.

karen said:
17 February 2011 @ 09:06

Our family have just returned from the Costa Del Sol after only 6 months. One of the main reasons we did not stay was the education system. Both our children were at Spanish state school, the oldest had just started High School, the younger, primary school. We found the primary school to be of high quality, however the lessons were all in Spanish and as a 4 year old she found it hard to adapt, however we were persevering and she was beginning to understand her teacher. However the secondary school was a different story! My daughter's 1st year class was mainly made up of English children with a few Spanish. Many of these children had no interest in learning Spanish and even those who were fluent did not mix with Spanish children. The level of education was very low and discipline pretty non existent. In fact in the 6 months my daughter was in school, the only thing she did learn was Spanish. She worked very hard and had an excellent teacher who appreciated my daughter's efforts and rewarded them. However the school was supposed to be bilingual, this was not practiced in any evident way. I realise that we, as a family, only had a short time in Spain, but I do believe that part of the problems are due to the non-mixing of the English and Spanish people, including parents and children. In fact when I made friends with some Spanish parents, and spoke to them outside the school gates, I was subsequently shunned by the other English parents. We were also worried by the realisation that many children who had been in Spain for a long time had lost the ability that had with the English language and some children could only read and write in Spanish! The whole situation caused us to come home to the UK, where our two children are now happily back at school.

Pommette said:
16 February 2011 @ 12:12

A very thought provoking article. And seems to be the case when you live on an urbanisation and continue to live as though you were in the UK.

But there is another side too!
We live in a small Spanish village - with only 3 other British families in our community. You have to learn Spanish or else you would not be able to do anything!
2 of these families have, like us, been here for over 5 years and their kids go to the local state school.
The 2 girls, aged 14, both now speak fluent Spanish and do act as interpreters for their parents (and us too when we are befuddled by the Valenciano spoken here). In fact . . . both of them actually now struggle at times in ENGLISH, particularly vocabulary, as they haven't learnt much more than when they came her aged 9.
The boy, aged 6, although not born here came when only a few months old. His English is terrible - all his friends are Spanish, he speaks Spanish all the time and uses his older sister to translate things to his mum when he doesn't know the right words to use in English.
Both are single mums and try really hard to improve their kids English, do help with homework and do have Spanish TV. But the kids now view themselves as Spanish - particuarly the 6 year.
So as I said - there are 2 sides to every story!

Rob said:
16 February 2011 @ 01:48

I used to be married to a Spanish assistant teacher in Alicante. Sadly she got involved in Hare Krishna and walked out on her marriage, but thats another story...
Anyway, her English was excellent so she used to help out in the English class but rather than the English teacher taking advantage and making the most of my ex's English he as intimmidated and resented her being in the class and made her feel very unwelcome.
A teaching job in Spain is regarded as a good job (unlike in the UK where its almost embarrasing to admit you are a teacher!) and they think very highly of themselves. Unfortunately that tends to makes them very arrogant.

Graham said:
15 February 2011 @ 22:09

I agree totally with the two comment but have some issues with the article. I find that the support for British kids around here in Valencia is usually excellent with the odd exception. Also the Spanish kids around this area are usually keen to learn.
There are problems as many of the teachers are useless, as intimated in the article, so the level of the Spanish kids is sometimes horrendously low. This is because they cannot be sacked and tend not to "recycle" their own language skills. They then feel intimidated by the English speaking kids.

janice wyatt said:
15 February 2011 @ 20:04

Hi, I agree totally with Phil. If you make the effort to learn Spanish and mix and then take the time to sit down with your children to ask and help them with their home-work they will have the confidence and the language skills to do well at school and make friends.We as parents have a huge responsibilty to our children and I must also point out that there is the other side of the coin of the spanish parents who take no interest in their children´s schooling and blame the teachers for their bad manners and lack of will to study.

Phil Hughes said:
15 February 2011 @ 19:09

What a good article. I wonder if the author realises that this is just the tip of the iceberg? I have lived in Spain 7 years and speak and write Spanish quite fluently. I often get called by British parents to go to the local schools to translate for them when they have been "summoned" for their childs misbehaviour. I used to think it was just the British kids being picked on, because in many cases they have come into the system at a difficult age, often after the age of 11, which I now believe is an important problem to resolve. However, over time I have come to believe that in most, but not all cases, the fault lies, as the author suggests, almost entirely with the parents. The kids come to Spain, get sent to learn in Spanish schools, come home at night and its sausage, egg and chips and Eastenders. Many of the cases I have been involved in are similar, the kids just sit at the back of the class, do nothing all day because they arent integrating, cant understand the lessons, come home, cant do homework and lie that they have any, (if the parents can be bothered to ask), and watch the tv all night. Parents think, "I don't need to learn Spanish, I'll wait for Johnny to learn and he can translate for me". Sorry, parents, its just not the way it works. I spent the first 3 years with just Spanish tv and subtitles to learn from, and that was before TDT. Im afraid that until parents wake up to their own responsibilities, nothing will change, just like in the UK.

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