You’ve made the bold decision to move your family to Spain. With children to consider, your priority must be, how will they fit in too?
It’s no easy matter moving your whole family abroad. The paper work itself can take an age to do and then you have the schools to consider. Unlike in some other countries, the competition for places is perhaps not as great in Spanish schools. People do tend to go to the local school and there isn’t the vying for places that you see in the UK. However, you still have some choices to make.
If your family are all very young it is likely that you will opt for a Spanish school. However, with older teenagers an international school, where they can continue their studies in English, might be a better option. Of course, this will also depend on your budget and where you live.
There are also semi privado schools in Spain to which you do contribute financially but are also funded by the state. These are usually quite difficult to enrol your child in and are usually linked to the church too.
If you opt to live somewhere that’s cosmopolitan and densely populated, it’s likely that there will be at least one international school within travelling distance. These schools generally teach the curriculum in English and may even be called a British school and teach the British national curriculum too.
The main advantage is if you have a teenage son or daughter who does not understand Spanish. Attending an International school means that they continue their studies in English and even possibly GCSEs and A levels, just like they would have in their home country.
Of course, these are fee-paying schools and you should estimate a fee of between 600 – 1,000 euros a month. It usually costs more depending on the age of your child. The disadvantage is that attending one of these will neither help their Spanish or enable them to integrate in the Spanish community. They will have additional Spanish lessons but will not be immersed in the same way as if they attend a Spanish school.
An increasing number of Spanish families, and families of other nationalities, are choosing British and English-speaking International school in order to improve their English, and your child will encounter Spanish speakers. However, the emphasis is very much on speaking and learning English. It will be easier, however, for you as parents to communicate with teachers and understand the way the school works.
If you are considering enrolling your child at an International School then you should make an appointment to visit the school first and take a look around. Do the children look happy? How welcome do you feel in the school? Is there a good sense of order and a calm atmosphere around the building?
If you decide that you are happy with what you see then make arrangements to enrol your child. They will need to have an NIE number and you will need to provide a bank account for the direct debit to be made. You are likely to have to pay an enrolment fee too.
It is beneficial if you can start your child in September, along with the other children rather than mid-year. This way, all the children in the class are experiencing something new and your child won’t feel as out of place.
Although these schools are ‘international’ it is likely that they will also show characteristics of the Spanish system too. So it is worthwhile familiarising yourself with the differences so that if they apply you are not overly surprised.
Formal, Spanish education starts from six years old. However, Spanish schools usually cater for children from three years old. It can seem very strange to a family used to the very nurturing environment of a nursery to see their child suddenly propelled at such a young age into full-blown school.
However, it is surprising how well they seem to cope, and, of course, the younger the better. The first three years provide a gradual introduction to school life. They are labelled according to the age of the child years 3,4 and 5.
The school year
The school year extends from September to June. However during the months of September and June the children only attend for half the day, starting their full days in October and finishing in May. Children are admitted according to where their birthday falls from January to December. So, they might only be the tender age of two when they begin their school life in September!
There are no half-term holidays in Spain. This compensates a little for the shorter overall year. Usually the Christmas and Easter breaks are around the same length of time as in the UK but, of course, the summer is much longer.
Enrolment takes place before Easter and you and your child will need residencia, padron and a medical certificate from the doctor. The final roll of children with a place in the school is usually posted on the door and you can expect that their teacher will call you in September about the exact day of admission if they are starting in year 3.
In primary school (6-12) the numbering starts again so at six years old your child will go into primeria 1 and will stay there until P6 after which they will move into the local IES or state secondary school.
The first three years in infants are very informal and the academic curriculum receives relatively little attention in favour of personal and social skills. However, don’t be lulled into an expectation that this will always be the case.
The primary years can hit you with a thud. To begin with, testing is a favourite pastime in Spain. Children have tests almost every week it seems and by P6 you can expect your child to be bringing home content to learn for their tests constantly.
The results of the tests are recorded formally and if your child continues to under perform they can be required to repeat the year. You should have a good indication that this might happen both through meetings with the teacher and the marks that are sent home. Remember, if you don’t speak Spanish you will probably need to take an interpreter with you to any parents’ meetings.
Although it isn’t usual for most schools to have uniform you will need to equip your child with a sturdy bag in which to transport all their text books home. Yes, Spanish education very much follows the book. With a core book for everything your child could soon be stooping under the weight if you’re not careful.
Although, in theory, education is free, like everywhere you will find that there are plenty of additional unanticipated costs.
You will have a choice at lunchtime of sending your child home or staying for school dinners. It will vary according to the area but in our experience the lunchtimes are long and include a number of additional activities. Consequently they average around 80€ to 90€ a month.
If you live a little way from the school your child might be able to catch a special school bus. These are staffed by the ‘monitorios’ and even the three years olds use them. Again, there is a charge for this but there are subsidies available for the cost of bussing and school dinners if you meet certain criteria.
Another very expensive item is the books. Every year you will be expected to buy a set of text books for your child to use. These start at somewhere around 80€ a year and climb significantly as they move through the school system. Again, you might be able to apply for a subsidy but should budget for these to be on the safe side.
Don’t expect to receive two weeks notice for every event and term and year plans from your child’s school. Information is not circulated as early as you might expect and sometimes doesn’t appear to be circulated at all. You will have to take greater responsibility for seeking out information about what’s happening from other parents. It won’t be fed to you.
Extra-curricular activities and classes are very popular and many children will attend an academy after school where they will work on their weaknesses or practise another skill. If you’re lucky your child’s school may organise some extra-curricular activities themselves. However, it is much more usual for parents to find sports clubs and ‘extras’ themselves.
Your first children’s parties will be an eye-opener. Parents generally stay during the party and chat to each other with family and friends. This can be a little intimidating for the foreigner but provides a really good opportunity to practise your Spanish and become familiar with the other parents who’s children will accompany yours through the school system.
Be aware that your child may get bored during English lessons. The readiness of teachers to differentiate varies a lot and in some cases your child will be expected to do identical work to a non-native speaker. Some parents do push on this and ask if their child can take in a book to read, for example.
You may struggle over homework, but the teacher doesn’t seem to agonise over it to the same extent. After your extensive translation efforts the week before it can be disappointing to see that homework remains unmarked or is left without any comment other than an occasional ‘mal’ (bad). This is very different from what would be expected in the UK and is quite common practice. Be prepared!
There are a number of differences and similarities between the different systems and they probably just about balance each other out. Schools have generally not been subjugated by league tables in Spain. However, this could be about to change and new laws are introducing testing arrangements that will pit schools against each other.
It will be a great shame if this undermines the tendency for children to go to a local school. Currently you will find a much greater social mix in most Spanish schools which could be eroded as middle class families seek out higher ‘achieving’ schools with the resulting segregation we see in the UK.
Enrolling your child in another school system is a challenge but can be a rewarding one. The Spanish system has its faults but overall the Spanish warmth towards children usually makes attending Spanish school a happy experience for most.