“We’ll send the children to a local school, they’ll pick up the language in no time”

Although the traditional market for homes in Spain belongs to the 50+ retirement age group, there is an increasing trend for younger people with school age children to make the move.  Most estate agents have little or no experience of selling to this target group, but in order to attract them will often make exaggerated and shallow claims about the ease with which children can adapt to the change of language and culture.  Many parents, in their eagerness to move abroad, become willing victims of such propaganda and fail to understand the implications of their decision on the present and future of their children.  Of course there are many examples of children moving to Spain successfully, but no one who is trying to sell you a house will take the trouble to find out about or to warn you of any of the potential pitfalls ahead.   One option is to place your child in a private international school, but many people are unable to afford this route and are seduced by the image of their offspring playing out in the sunshine with local children, chattering away in Spanish.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget what it is like to be a child.  While the adult world buzzes around you with complex decision-making, time restraints, money problems and conversations that simply go over your head, you are thinking about other things -  what your best friend said about your little brother, what the teacher did that wasn’t fair, what you didn’t understand about your homework, whether you’ve been made to wear something that doesn’t look cool.  When you hear talk of a move to Spain you wonder what all your friends will say when they find out.  Will they be jealous?  Will they still want to be your friend?  Or will they close ranks against you?   Those are your preoccupations, while your parents are discussing all those serious grown up things about starting a new life in Spain.

Children, on the whole, hate change.  They like to know what is what around them, where they are in the pecking order, who they can trust and who they can’t, what the rules are, what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not.  Change implies a return to insecurity, re-learning everything from scratch, feeling inadequate, risking rejection.  It’s all very well for Mum and Dad to tell that you will make new friends in your new school, that the weather will be better and you can play outside more, and that you are so lucky to be able to learn Spanish.  They seem to think that’s enough to make you happy, but it doesn’t really answer your real fear, the fear of the unknown.  Of course change is good for children.  It’s part of learning and growing up and it is an inevitable part of their journey to adulthood.  We would be entirely wrong to protect children from it.  However, we are also in the wrong if we fail to realise that they are looking at change in a completely different way from us.

Now let’s look at the situation from the other side.  What is going on in the Spanish state school which you are hoping your child is about to enter.  Well, first it must be said that the Spanish are a little set in their ways when dealing with children.  The way a child should be brought up is passed on from mother to daughter, in all aspects of life from correct nutrition to sleep patterns, from discipline to the kinds of explanations they are given about adult life.  A Spanish child grows up in a world which has far more contact with adults, where far fewer allowances are made for their tastes and interests and where all adults treat them with the same mixture of affection and well-worn principles.   School teachers have also been brought up, and have brought their own children up, in a similar way, so there will be a great consistency in the adult world about how a child should be treated.  At the same time there are far fewer official rules and regulations to worry about.  In Spain a great deal more is left to common sense and the genuine affection felt by nearly all Spanish adults for all the children they come into contact with. 

Although there have been many reforms in education over recent decades, there still exists an underlying conformity of attitude about what is normal and what isn’t, what is acceptable and what isn’t, what is good for children and what isn’t, things on which practically the whole of Spanish society agrees, and which differ from many of our own ideas.  On a practical, organisational level, the way things work in a local school also tends to be common knowledge amongst parents, teachers and children alike.  Everyone knows what year a child should be in according to his or her age, what mark he or she must achieve and in how many subjects to be making good progress; what should be done with a child who is lagging behind, what are the consequences of anti-social behaviour.   In every locality people know the dates that schools shut down for the local saints day, at what time parents can turn up to watch the Christmas show, and how long it usually lasts, that the director’s name is José and is best contacted at 11 a.m. on Monday mornings.  All these things are known by everybody, so there is no need for them to be posted up on school gates or written down in letters to parents.  Any Spanish parent new to the area will simply ask around about what is going on and fit in.   Unfortunately for you as an outsider it will probably be much more difficult to cotton on to what is going on, and for your child to settle into and feel a part of this strange, foreign world of school.

The process of getting your child enrolled into a state school varies from region to region and area to area, and it is inevitably a much more difficult process in places which have a large influx of different nationality children.  Certain kinds of paperwork, such as proof of local residency, have become an essential requirement in these areas, without which you literally have no hope of finding a place in a state school. 

Carl’s story 

Carl is eleven.  His parents bought a new house off-plan in an inland village in the region of Murcia.  They used a small estate agent who was extremely attentive and helpful in all aspects of their purchase and they were more than happy with the service they were receiving.  One of the perks the agent offered their clients was to put them up free of charge in another “new build” house in south Alicante province whilst their house was being built.  The family moved over to Spain about six months before their house was due for completion, taking advantage of the estate agent’s offer.  Carl is an active, sociable boy who needed to be occupied at school as soon as possible.  With the help of an interpreter Carl’s mother Louise went to the local town hall to find out what needed to be done about this, and was told that the first step was to register the family as local residents. 

Unfortunately, there was a problem.  The house they were staying in was on a residential estate that was still being completed and had not yet been “handed over” to the town council.  This meant that there was no official address which the town hall would recognise.  In addition the estate agent had not given them any kind of rental contract, in fact they were not paying any rent the whole arrangement was “unofficial” as far as the Spanish legal or tax system was concerned.  It was therefore impossible for Louise to get together the necessary paperwork.  Unfortunately the town hall, which is constantly inundated with cases of this kind, were not as helpful as they might have been in explaining to her exactly what the problem was, so she spent a great deal of time and energy obtaining papers which would prove the genuineness of her situation, but all to no avail.   On one visit to the town hall she was accompanied by a representative of her estate agency who spoke with members of staff at some length in voluble Spanish, but did not explain to her what had been said.  Then suddenly the estate agents became less helpful as well.  They were clearly not in a position to legalise the family’s accommodation, and could only promise her another premises six weeks into the future.  Their only other alternative was to move into rented accommodation independently, thus incurring considerable costs for which they had not budgetted.

The situation persisted for eight weeks.  Carl’s father was making progress building up his business in the area, while Louise tried to take Spanish bureaucracy on single-handed and became increasingly desperate about finding a way through.  Wherever she went she was accompanied by Carl who was bored, missing his friends and becoming fractious and undisciplined.   Louise could find no one who could help her, until she finally met someone who suggested she looked at placing Carl into the village school where their house was to be built – approximately 30 kilometres away.  She had not done this before because she had no rental agreement or deeds relating to their unbuilt house, because the estate agency themselves had not thought to make this suggestion and because the village was in a very Spanish area and she had no idea how to go about it.   Carl’s story has a happy ending.  Carl and Louise were accompanied to the school where he was welcomed with open arms.   Out of the huge bundle of original documents, signed letters, translations and photocopies that Louise had accumulated in eight weeks, the school glanced at one or two, filled in the requisite form and asked when he would like to start.  As a village school some twenty kilometres away from the coast, there was a small handful of English-speaking children attending, and the school director explained how they would work together to help Carl feel at home.   Since a lot of new houses were being built in the village, it was clear that the family were moving in ahead of the rush, a fact which would probably give Carl an advantage at the school in the future.   The family cheerfully embraced their only remaining problem, which was daily transportation to and from the school until their new house was completed.  Louise’s conclusion about the estate agency was that, as helpful as they had been in other ways, they had absolutely no idea about the problems of moving to Spain with children and despite all their promises of aftersale care and service, in this regard they had been of no help to her whatsoever.  

So what is the experience like for an English speaking child arriving at a Spanish primary school?   As is to be expected, there are many things that are different.  Spanish schools are much less formal and legalistic than their British equivalents.  There is an air of organised chaos.  Spanish children are noisy, and their noisiness tends to be tolerated, at least outside of lesson time.  Teachers, who are invariably addressed by their first name, will behave in ways which appear over-casual to the English eye. They are inclined to walk away from waiting lines of children to talk to parents, they will send pupils on errands, leave the classroom unattended, sometimes using classmates as monitors.  In dealing with individual children and their difficulties they will show compassionate common sense without being bound by the ties of political correctness which inhibit their British counterparts. Perhaps what most obviously emanates from Spanish school teachers, in common with most Spanish adults, is their genuine liking of children.

However, whatever happens when English speaking children first arrive at primary school, the one thing you can be sure of is that it will all happen in rapid Spanish, to a great deal of background noise.   And however many Spanish lessons they may have received in advance, they will spend the first weeks or months understanding a very small proportion of the rapid speech that surrounds them.  Most teachers will think of assigning a Spanish friend to your child to show them where things are and how things are done, and in schools that are used to receiving foreigners this method of integration will to some extent be institutionalised.  Children who manage to enter a school in one of the more saturated areas of the Spanish costas will soon meet up with the other children of their own nationality, whom they are bound to gravitate towards, simply because they can understand each other in a world of meaningless babble.   In some schools the ganging together of nationalities is discouraged, but it is difficult to control, especially when teachers do not speak the various languages involved and when there are large immigrant groups.  Your children will naturally feel more comfortable mixing with compatriots, but this will greatly inhibit their learning of the Spanish language and in the worse cases it can lead to bullying and gang rivalries which teachers will have difficulty in controlling.  From this point of view when thinking about where you are going to live with school aged children it is always better to be in a predominantly Spanish area.

A focus of cultural difference which your child will have to come to terms with is the school dinner.   Children are not allowed to take packed lunches to school, and if you need them to stay at school all day, they are required to eat in the school canteen.  The Spanish have very high standards about the food they provide for their children.  It will be fresh, well-balanced, varied and on the whole well cooked – allowing for the obvious limitations of institutional kitchens.  They also have high standards about children’s eating habits.  The vast majority of Spanish children will have been brought up eating the same food, at the same table as adults, will have had no concessions made for their tastes, and will be used to eating up platefuls of things they don’t like very much, along with things they do.  By school age, therefore, their tastes will be far more varied than that of their British counterparts, and their behaviour at the table will be better.  Spanish dinner ladies who monitor the lunch-time break will be concerned to fulfill their moral as well as contractual responsibilities, to make sure that the children in their care continue to be well-nourished. 

Now bring into this equation a non-Spanish speaking infant who has never seen about ninety per cent of the range of food he or she is expected to eat, who has always been allowed to leave food he doesn’t like without a fuss, and who is used to child-sized portions and child-friendly processed food, predominated by fish-fingers, chicken nougats and beef burgers, all served with chips and tomato sauce.  This may be a caricature of the average British child’s diet, but in any case, very few of these children will have ever seen, never mind been obliged to eat, lentils, chickpeas, fresh fish, vegetable purées, asparagus, olives, rice with seafood or mixed salads, to name but of few of the healthy and nourishing food items that Spanish children will regard as normal.  Naturally enough the newcomer will refuse to eat what is put in front of him on the grounds that he doesn’t know what it is, and that it looks disgusting, whereupon the dinner monitors will move into action following time-honoured methods of convincing errant children to eat.   This will involve a great of conversation including persuading, cajoling and, if the child proves really recalcitrant, mild punishments such as making the child sit alone until they have eaten what is on their plate.  Unfortunately dinner ladies, who are probably the kindest of souls, are not usually trained in international diplomacy and do not expect foreign children to behave any differently from the many others who have past through their hands.  Also unfortunately, their constant motherly chatting and exhortations such as: “Come on, eat up this half and I’ll let you off the rest”, “Four more mouthfuls and we’ll call it a day”, “Look it’s really nice, see Manuel over there, he’s enjoying it” and all the rest of it, comes over as a meaningless babble to a child whose Spanish is not yet good enough to understand a word.   This can be extraordinarily stressful and upsetting and many children have arrived home distraught, with tales of being force-fed inedible food, about which many an English parent has been up in arms, even writing to the local ex-pat press about the Spanish barbaric third-world treatment of children.   As incredible as it may seem, in more than one case school canteen problems have actually made parents reconsider their family’s future in Spain. These reactions are quite incomprehensible to the Spanish, who merely wish to see the children in their charge growing up well-fed and well cared for and simply cannot understand parents who allow their children to get away with such appalling eating habits.

Meanwhile, what is going on in the primary classroom?  Well your child will be studying a number of subjects in ways that are completely different from what he is used to.  Mathematics for example is more traditional, the level in Spain is about a year ahead of Britain, and certain operations, such as long divisions, are done completely differently.   There is a subject called “Conocimiento del Medio” which is a mixture of geography, biology, science and history, in which children are introduced to concepts seen much later in English schools, and these concepts, of course, will all be dealt with in Spanish.  Much easier, in fact rather too easy, will be the subject of English as a foreign language, whilst the Spanish language, again taught in rather a traditional manner, will be studied at a level well beyond the reach of your child.  Along much of the mediterranean coast there are official regional dialects as well as the main Castilian Spanish language, which are used by schools and taught as a separate subject.  Depending on the school and the area it is in, there will be some Spanish language support on offer for English and other nationality children which may include basic communicative phrases as well as subject support.   One of modern Spain’s educational priorities is the integration of foreigners into the country, but with the focus being mainly on immigrants from Africa, Asia and South America rather than northern Europe. 

Do not be deceived by over-enthusiastic salesmen, or your own wishful thinking, into believing that the process involved in converting your child from an English-speaking to a Spanish-speaking school pupil is anything other than disorientating and time-consuming.  One of the most dangerous aspects of the process is that after a while your child’s personal survival mechanisms will mean that he will understand what is expected of him in day-to-day situations – whether his book should be open or closed, whether he can speak, move, walk or run,whether he should stand or sit, whether something funny is happening and he should laugh, whether he is required to take action or to sit quietly.  This part is easily learnt by picking up key instructions and copying friends, and children will learn quickly to avoid looking a fool or being different.  Unfortunately however, school teachers are not mind-readers, nor are they trained in any way to deal with second language learners, and may well interpret this quickness in everyday activities as a sign of genuine language comprehension.  Unfortunately it is not, it is merely a demonstration of children’s survival instincts, whilst their actual development as students, their true understanding of the concepts being taught in class, and their real ability to interpret or use them, will be considerably impeded for a long time.  Obviously the older the child the slower the process of true comprehension, not just because of the age itself, but because of the complexity of concepts they are expected to grasp in the classroom.

At primary school level, with patience, understanding and good communication between school and parents, such difficulties should eventually be overcome, although a great deal depends not only on the age but also on the personality and character of your child.  This natural process of adaptation should never be taken for granted however, and if there are any additional issues involved such as learning difficulties, special needs or family problems then the challenges are even greater.  Special needs provision of any kind in Spain is far behind that of the UK, and correct understanding and diagnosis of problems will be impeded by the language barrier between child, family, teachers and specialised staff.  Unfortunately at secondary level the whole situation is more complicated still.

Natalie’s story

Natalie is 14 years old and the youngest of three.  Her parents sold up their business and decided to move to Spain with Natalie to enjoy a better way of life.  They discussed the idea of moving with their daughter from the beginning but she was very reluctant, fearing she would be bored and would miss the friends she had grown up with.  Her parents finally persuaded her and she moved over full of apprehension about what was in store.  She was never very good at languages at school and was hoping there would be other English children she could make friends with.  She was enrolled at the local education department and was assigned to a Spanish secondary school with a high percentage of British and other nationalities.  She and her parents had a lot of difficulty understanding the various steps they had to take to get her into the school, but with the help of other parents they eventually managed it.  The school office did not appear to have any members of staff who spoke English, neither were they particularly helpful, only giving information when asked.   Natalie was assigned to a class in which there were about half a dozen other English speaking children, along with several other nationalities and about a third Spanish.   She was given two hours of Spanish classes a day which were helpful but only conducted in Spanish as other children in the class spoke different first languages, so it was impossible to ask any questions.  During the rest of her school time she sat in the main class unable to understand what was going on.  Discipline in most classes was fairly lax so she found it was easy to chat with her new English friends while the teacher talked from the front.   For the first few weeks she was without text books which made it impossible to follow the classes in any way.  Eventually someone told her where she could get a list of books to buy and where to buy them.  Once she had the books she could at least see what page the class was on, but no other help was offered.  She was not required to do any homework except for her Spanish language class.   Now that Natalie and her friends have learnt to speak Spanish fairly fluently the situation has got worse rather than better: “The teachers think that just because we can speak Spanish we understand everything in the class, and we don’t.  Also they complain that we don’t speak Spanish in class, but if we do the Spanish children laugh at us when we make a mistake.”  Natalie feels that the staff dislike foreign children because they disrupt the class, and that they are unsympathetic to their difficulties.   Some of the English children in Natalie’s class have had official warning notes sent to the parents for bad behaviour.  Natalie’s parents don’t come to the school to sort out problems because no English is spoken and they don’t really understand how the system works.  Neither Natalie, nor her parents or friends have any idea about the qualifications she should be aiming for or what she needs to do to achieve them.   Natalie is now biding her time, waiting for the day she can leave.  She speaks fluent Spanish but has achieved little else.  Her academic prospects are very poor because while she has been spending over a year acquiring the language, she has fallen behind in every subject.

How exactly are Natalie and her classmates viewed by the staff at her school?  Firstly, it must be remembered that the Spanish school system, like many Spanish institutions, was created for the Spanish themselves, and having to cope with a large influx of foreigners is an entirely novel experience.   There is no equivalent of ESL (English as a Second Language) training for Spanish school teachers so simple classroom techniques to help children integrate are unknown.  Secondary school teachers in Spain, rather like University teachers in the UK, do not have any specific teacher training and only have to be qualified in their own field.  The schools have a more “adult” approach to pupils, which means that the onus is on them to study and produce results if they wish to get on.  Many children moving from the English system to the Spanish one therefore mistake this attitude for a license to do nothing at all.   There is no reason why any member of staff at the school should be able to speak English, apart that is from the specialist English teacher, who might be forgiven for hiding in a cupboard with a bag over their head, the alternative being spending hours of unpaid time sorting out other people’s problems.   In this rather individualistic atmosphere of a typical secondary school suddenly having to cope with a flood of foreigners, it is unlikely to occur to anyone to provide such simple things as a seminar for non-Spanish parents to explain the Spanish system, a training session for teachers on techniques for teaching non-Spanish speakers, a translation of school information and letters to parents or an English-speaking counsellor for children to help them with the many problems they are likely to be having at their age in such a particular environment.  All these things require time and money, both of which are in short supply and likely to be a lot further down on the school’s budget requirements than repairs to the roof, two new classrooms, an extra two members of staff and half a dozen computers.  They also require imagination, the lack of which is possibly most at fault.

Spanish secondary school teachers in these saturated coastal areas have, on the whole, no idea what is going on with their English speaking pupils.   Unlike in the case of immigrant children from poorer countries, they do not really know why they are living in Spain in the first place, who their parents are and what they are like, and why they seem so disgruntled and uninterested in communicating.  They have no real understanding of the cultural gulf that these pupils have crossed and the many basic things they do not really comprehend about their environment.   The natural reaction of many adolescents who feel misunderstood by parents or teachers is to withdraw into themselves, into their own language group and to become uncooperative, disaffected and undisciplined.  This is bound to be interpreted negatively by the school, and if parents are not on hand to talk the matter through either, the child will become more and more alienated from the system.  In many cases the parents are equally to blame.  They may have made little effort to learn the language and are far too interested in enjoying their own new lives in Spain to worry unduly about their children’s predicament.  Since no one has taken any trouble to explain to them in their own language what is expected of them and their children, they are inclined to ignore the negative signs, thus storing up trouble for themselves and more to the point for their children, in future years. 

This seems like a grim view of the matter, and of course there are success stories to recount as well.  If a teenager is interested enough he or she can overcome these hurdles and go on to make something for themselves in the future, although it is hard to see how that can be achieved within the Spanish further or higher education system because of the extent to which they will have been set back in their studies.  In most cases they will either leave school early to start work in an area with poor long-term employment prospects, or they will have to return to the UK to pursue any further training or education.  A teenager’s chances of success in Spain are bound to be increased if their family moved to more Spanish areas, if they take a close interest in their children’s work and development, if they make an effort to learn Spanish and communicate with the school, and if they are prepared to be patient with a system that unfortunately makes absolutely no allowances for them. 


A few points to bear in mind when considering taking children to live in Spain

Get the timing right.  It is always easier for children to settle into school at the beginning of the school year in September.  To guarantee a place, particularly in highly populated areas, you will need to go through the enrolment process in the spring for the following September.

Get the timetable right.  Timetables vary, but many primary schools still operate a split day with two or three hours break for lunch.  If you do not wish your child to eat school dinners, or there is no room for them in the dining room, you will have to pick them up and take them back in the middle of the day.   This often does not fit in with the working hours of English people in Spain. 

Get the budget right.  Although most state schools do not have a school uniform, you will have to buy all their text books, notebooks and other materials.

Get the place right first time.  If you are initially in temporary accommodation, try to place your children into the schools they will be in long term.   

Prepare your children.  Talk to them realistically about the move -  why you think it is right for them and what they might find difficult.  Give them a minimum of one year’s Spanish language tuition, which should include Maths tuition in Spanish, before moving to Spain.  If possible try to find new friends for them in advance by contacting other families making the same move.

Make every effort to learn Spanish yourself.  Do not assume that your children will be able to help you, you will need to support them in their learning.  Before your Spanish is good enough, use an interpreter to deal with the school.

Find out if the area you are moving to has a local dialect.  For example, the region of Valencia has a second official language, Valenciano, which is an obligatory school subject in some parts of the region.

Find out times that tutors can be visited.  Make yourself known at the school and ask about your child’s progress regularly.   Ask your child’s teacher for their advice regarding support at home.

If your child comes home with complaints of any sort, regarding teachers, monitors or other children, go to the school to find out what is happening.  If you do so in an open and non-confrontational way you will enable the school to solve what are often quite complex social problems and cultural misunderstandings.

Don’t assume the school has any kind of integration system in place for your child.  Some schools are progressive in this field whilst others have hardly started.  Remember they may have an intake of many other nationalities each with its demands and problems.  The onus is on you and your family to fit in with things as they are.

Remember that secondary schools have a freer atmosphere than in the UK and that the school day ends at around 2 p.m.  If you are not around for your children during their free time, and are not aware of their movements, there are many temptations and pitfalls they can be falling into without your knowledge.

Think very hard indeed before bringing a teenage child to Spain.  Firstly, remember that they are coping with all the normal turmoils associated with their age.  Secondly, they have practically no hope at all of keeping up with the Spanish academic level which is higher than in the English system, even allowing for the language difference.  Thirdly, you are depriving them of the chance of obtaining the qualifications they will need to have a better future, wherever they finally decide to live.   Think seriously about waiting until they have finished their education and become independent before making your move.

Most important of all, be honest with yourself.  Are you moving for your own sake or for the sake of your children?  Unless the answer is for both, you are making a mistake. 

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