In May 2003 I was contacted by the president of the Parent Teachers Association (AMPA) of a secondary school in Torrevieja. Both he and some of the staff at the school were completely at a loss as to how to deal with the English speaking children at the school, whom they found to be unco-operative and undisciplined. This is a report of my findings.


In May 2003 I was contacted by the president of the Parent Teachers Association (AMPA) of a secondary school in Torrevieja. Both he and some of the staff at the school were completely at a loss as to how to deal with the English speaking children at the school, whom they found to be unco-operative and undisciplined. My name was passed on to them as someone who might help and after a meeting with the school psychologist and the AMPA president I asked if I could arrange to talk to the young people concerned. They were only too happy to organise this as they were very keen to find out more about the students and how they themselves perceived their situation at the school. I agreed to write a report on my findings which they intended to share with other members of staff and possibly use to lobby the local education authorities for help with the problem which they saw as acute.

Two meetings were held with students of 1st and 2nd and then 3rd and 4th year students and a report written shortly afterwards. I believe that the report has been presented to various authorities but as far as I know no funding has been granted to enable any of the recommendations to be acted upon.

When reading the report it should be borne in mind that it was originally written in Spanish for the benefit of Spanish school staff and authorities. It might also be of interest to note that this report was written three months before my interview with the Torrevieja Education Councillor, José Antonio Montesinos Perez, on behalf of CB Friday, (http://www.croninlanguages.com/eng/docs/showarticle.php?articleID=88) in which he insists that English speaking secondary school children have few problems settling in to local schools.

Meetings held with English speaking secondary students held in Torrevieja on 26th May 2003

Meeting with "Primer ciclo" 1st and 2nd year students of ESO (about 20 young people attended this meeting)

Subject discussed: How do you see your future?

Responses: More or less half of the students saw themselves staying in Spain to work, the rest intended to return to their home country to work. Typical jobs they aspired to were: vets, air hostess, designer, dancer, actor etc.

Comments: They seemed to be young people with normal aspirations for their age. They did not seem to have any awareness of the connection between passing exams at school and being able to fulfill their ambitions.

Subject discussed: Do you like living in Spain?

Responses: Some said that the only thing they like is the sun. Some said that life is more relaxing and less stressful. One said he liked this secondary school better than the one in the UK as he was allowed to do what he liked.

Comments: The students seemed to have very little or no concepts about the culture and social life of the Spanish. Their comments seemed to reflect the attitudes of their parents. The comment about the school reflects the fact that secondary schools in the UK are stricter and more disciplined that those in Spain.

Subject discussed: What problems do you have at school?

Responses: Teachers treat them as one group and not as individuals. The teachers take no notice of them when they try to explain their problems. Some teachers pick on them because they are English. The teachers show favouritism to the Spanish students. Teachers tend to blame them for things which are not their fault. The teachers tell them off when they don't understand something. They think that the Spanish children don't like them. When Spanish children pick on them the teachers do not intervene.

Some students tried to qualify these comments, recognising that the teachers are not always unfair and giving examples of when a teacher punished a Spanish student for picking on an English one. Punishments seemed very mild compared to UK and Ireland. One of the students dared to say that he thought the teachers were not strict enough.

Comments: Although some of the students may have taken advantage of the conversation to exaggerate slightly, there was a clear sense from the whole group that they felt marginalised by the teachers, that the teachers did not seem to bother about their problems and that they therefore suffered injustices in relation to the Spanish students.

Subject discussed: How do you feel in class?

Responses: They are bored because a lot of the time they don't understand things properly. They don't learn anything practical, it's all theoretical. The teachers ignore them because they don't understand and don't bother to help them. One girl said she was the only English student in her class and wished she was with others as they could help each other.

Comment: It is the case that some of the subjects in UK and Irish secondary schools are taught in a more practical way, which means that some students would notice a marked difference.

Subject discussed: Language

Responses: Most of the students stated that they spoke quite good Spanish. Two or three said that they had an elementary level of Spanish and only one or two said that they spoke no Spanish at all. When asked why teachers complained that they did not speak Spanish in class they replied as follows: they were embarrassed to speak Spanish because others students laughed at their pronunciation; some teachers spoke too quickly which meant that they didn't pick up everything they were saying and when they showed that they could speak reasonable Spanish the teachers assumed they could understand absolutely everything, which is not the case. The teachers do not appreciate their difficulties in understanding and expressing themselves in Spanish and make no allowances for them.

Comment: Speaking as a language teacher myself, I found the account of the students' difficulties in class quite credible and understandable, including the lack of understanding on the part of teachers who have never found themselves in a similar situation, that is having to function exclusively in a foreign language.

Subject discussed: What problems they think other students might have with them.

Responses: Most students could not think of an answer to this question. Some of the more mature ones commented that other students might feel bothered when they couldn't understand what English children said to each other, that there might be some jealousy involved towards students who can speak two languages and that it was possible some teachers didn't help them for fear of appearing to give them special treatment.

Comment: Only very few of them were able to put themselves in the place of others and imagine what effect their negative behaviour might have.

Subject discussed: Involvement of parents

Responses: Most students said that their parents did not speak Spanish or spoke very little and that they do not generally go to the school to talk about their children's progress. Most of the students seemed to consider the involvement of their parents as irrelevant. Some students said that their parents had gone to the school in the past but didn't do so any longer as it made no difference.

Comment: The few students who said that their parents did go to the school from time to time were the same students who came across as more mature and aware of others.

Subject discussed: What could the school do to help them?

Responses: One suggestion was to "pair" a Spanish and an English student so that the Spanish students could help them to find their way around when they first arrive. Most students agreed that it would be better to have classes separately from Spanish children. Their main demand was that there should be teachers who understood their difficulties and they also want teachers to tell the Spanish students off for laughing at their Spanish. They would like more practical classes.

Comment: Apart from some comments about the classes themselves, the main focus of all their complaints were connected to problems of communication.

Conclusion to meeting with first cycle students

There was a mixture of different attitudes in the group. There was a certain degree of immaturity and ignorance in many of their comments about the Spanish. Others were genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to discuss their problems and had a serious discussion. It was clear that these students suffered from being classed as part of the group of "ingleses" which generally have a bad reputation. Although there was some reference to problems with Spanish students, the majority of complaints were aimed at the teachers. At the end of the session many of the students asked if there was going to be another meeting. I believe that the fact that they were given the opportunity to discuss their problems with an adult who understood them gave them help and encouragement. After the meeting one girl who had remained quiet throughout approached me and said that she, and some of the other students, really wanted to study and to integrate in the school but they felt prevented from doing so by the other English speaking children.

Meeting with Segundo Ciclo, 3rd and 4th year students

(Only five students attending this meeting because of the high degree of absenteeism in these classes)

There were only five students present in this meeting. They were calm and said that they had no problems at the school, or that the problems they had at first were now been resolved. I decided to put to them the problems expressed by the students at the first meeting, and ask their opinions as to how these problems could be addressed by the school.

Their general impressions

They confirmed that in their opinion some of the teachers picked on English children, that they sometimes laughed at their Spanish and that it is impossible to discuss a problem with a teacher. If they have a problem of any kind, even a serious one, they always discuss it with their school friends. They do not know any adult at the centre with whom they can talk and are unaware of the existence of support staff at the school. One girl told me that she was new at the school (a few months) and had two hours a day of Spanish classes. She is given Spanish homework, but no other work as she does not understand the classes. She spends the rest of the day sitting in the classroom, receiving no extra work or support. She just has to sit there. She thinks that it is logical that she chats to other English students, as all the others do. She felt that she was beginning to understand the language a little and is quite happy as she has lots of friends. Another girl told me that she had not wanted to come to live in Spain but her parents had persuaded her. She was then happy about the move until she started at the secondary school. The shock and disorientation was so bad that the only thing she wanted was to go back to England. Another girl spoke of the lack of information when she first arrived. She did not know what books she needed or where to buy them. Once she had finally got the books she felt better because even though she couldn't understand the class at least she could see where they were in the book. These students also felt that there is a lack of discipline in classes and in the school in general.

Their suggestions

I asked their opinion about what could be done to make the experience of English students at the school less traumatic. They said that the most important time was during the first few days. It would have been much better if there had been someone who spoke English who could help them to settle in - for example, to tell them where they should go if they felt ill etc. Written information in English and even translations of the signs around the building would all help. They would also like to know which of the teachers speak English so they know who they can go to speak to if necessary. Ideally they would like someone who speaks English who could come to the school on a regular basis. They would like to be able to make an appointment to speak to this person and discuss any problems they might have at the school.

Recommendations

I have drawn some conclusions from these two meetings, but I would like to emphasise that they are based on only two conversations with these young people and that I do not know them, or the situation they are describing in enough depth to make anything more than superficial recommendations. Nevertheless I think the following action should be taken:

1.To prepare a welcome pack for all the new English speaking children at the school. This should include: translations of the names of departments, signs and subjects. Lists of teachers and other professionals at the school. An explanation of timetables and holidays. Ideally this should also include an explanation as to some of the differences between this school and the school they may have attended before in their home country. There should also be a letter to the parents explaining their role in their child's education and an explanation of the norms of discipline, attendance etc.
2.Pair English speaking children with Spanish children to accompany and help them during their first few days at the school.
3.To have an adult, either a member of staff or a person from outside, who can have some specific time to speak to the children individually, and at times as a group.
4.If at all possible, provide some English speaking tutorial to help clarify some of their work.
5.It would also be very helpful for there to be some kind of training session for teachers in order to help them understand the problems that foreigners have with their language and to provide some basic guidelines as to how to communicate with non-Spanish speakers in class (repeating instructions using different words, pointing out key words, showing patience when listening to them expressing themselves in Spanish, controlling the behaviour of Spanish students towards others if they laugh or imitate them etc.)
6.The school should help parents during the period of registration with form filling and other processes.

Conclusions

As in any group of young people there was a mixture of those who were more or less mature and more or less interested in studying and integrating in the school. Also the nature of the meetings held did give the opportunity for students to exaggerate some of their complaints. However, there was an overwhelming impression that these students are in a very difficult situation, one which could be substantially alleviated by the centre, and which is preventing these children from developing well academically, socially and personally. What was left unheard were the views of those older students who were absent from the meeting as they are habitually absent from the school.

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