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Expat kids in Spanish schools: The best days of their lives?

Were your school days the best days of your life? Do you long to once more experience the aroma of school dinners and battle across the school field in all weathers? OK, it had its ups and downs, but generally and for most people, school was a blissful time of few worries and long holidays. However, for some British pupils in Spanish schools the experience is far from pleasurable.


Foreign children in Spanish schools ‘The education of foreign students in the province of Alicante,’ a report by the University of Alicante for Asti-Alicante, an educational charity, is an extensive piece of research that paints to a very sorry picture of the experiences of some British students in Spanish state schools.

The report found that British students often segregate themselves, become involved in gangs and refuse to subscribe to the Spanish system. Eventually they drop out, choosing absenteeism as an option in their later secondary years. The problems, the researchers noted, were most acute in schools with high proportions of English students with disruptive behaviour causing significant difficulties for themselves and those around them.

According to the researchers: “British students have the greatest difficulty integrating, bringing with them their own multicultural model which can be summarised by the phrase ‘each to his own and each to his own God’ and excludes the possibility of interacting with other ethnicities and cultures, including the Spanish.”

Nothing new

The difficulties that many British young people find integrating into Spanish secondary schools has been highlighted before. Jane Cronin is a teacher and writer who has lived in Spain for over 20 years. Through her work she has heard many worrying accounts of the difficulties families have experienced. She was even asked to talk to British students at a school in Torrevieja about the reasons for their disaffection. Particularly telling was that Jane was only able to speak to five of the older students because the rest were absent at the time.

Jane’s own report highlighted the disengagement that many of the pupils felt. They complained that they weren’t listened to, that teachers favoured Spanish students and that they became bored because they didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. They remained a group apart: “The students seemed to have very little or no concept about the culture and social life of the Spanish. Their comments seemed to reflect the attitude of their parents.”

So what are some of the major issues for British teenagers in Spain and how does this compare with what’s happening in the United Kingdom?

Need for support

A major cause for concern among British families seems to be the level of additional support children do or do not receive. When children join the school, expectations are high that additional help will be given. Some families perceive support in Britain for foreign students as being vastly superior and are disappointed at the extent to which their own children in Spain seem to be dropped in at the deep end. Even where pupils acquire a survival level of Spanish, the technical vocabulary used in many lessons is often beyond them.

The need for help might not just be confined to the language. Children will come to school with a full range of additional special needs that teachers in Spanish schools might have difficulty recognising and acting upon. The lesson content might be different to what they have experienced in England and pupils have neither the concepts nor the language to cope.

In the UK: Of course, the grass is always greener. However, many of the issues mentioned in the report are echoed in the experiences of newly arrived children to UK schools. The level of support varies enormously from one local authority to another. There is often inadequate funding for pupils admitted mid-year who don’t speak English. Where this is the case schools can struggle to gain access to additional support and can find it hard to integrate pupils and their families. In some cases, even where money is available, there are no mother-tongue speakers available to assist them. No doubt, the experience for these pupils and their parents is equally traumatic.

Keeping pupils back a year

This is an area of particular anxiety to parents and their children. Where a pupil has not met the objectives planned for the last two-year period they can be required to repeat the year. Understandably, parents and pupils can feel stigmatised by this very public acknowledgement of their failure to meet requirements. A pupil kept back two years, for example a 16 year old in a class of 14 years olds, has a very different level of maturity to class mates causing further potential problems.

In the UK: Holding back a year is virtually unheard of in the UK. Children always remain with the same age group unless there is a very strong reason not to. However, setting by ability is more common place in UK schools and is equally, if not more, stigmatising.


According to international research, Spain has a very low level of bullying in relation to other European countries. In ‘Doing better for children’ (OECD – 2009) Spain was second only to Sweden as having the lowest percentage of bullying amongst 24 countries. However, there may be differences in relation to what is perceived to be bullying. For example, the issue of ‘isolation bullying’ or being left out from friendship groups, is currently receiving attention in the UK. This type of behaviour may not be recognised as bullying in Spanish schools.

Where bullying does occur it can be very difficult to deal with in an international context. As Jane Cronin points out, there are additional complexities where bullying involves different nationalities: “It’s hard enough sorting out bullying issues when it’s in your own language let alone two or three languages you don’t understand.”

In the UK: Bullying is very high on the government’s agenda. It’s perceived to be a serious problem, not only in secondary schools. Schools are required to have anti-bullying policies but it remains a very difficult issue to deal with in practice. Parents can feel that it is the victim who is punished and that the bullies are rewarded with extra attention and support.


The Alicante researchers comment that “the curriculum in Spanish schools is strict and the discipline relaxed, while in British schools the curriculum is relaxed and the discipline strict.”

There is certainly a perception that the informal approach of Spanish schools can lead to indiscipline in classrooms. Debbie Shepherd has a teenage daughter at a Spanish secondary school and expresses a view heard among other expat mums: “You can’t tell the teachers from the pupils. They all look the same, they call each other by first names and they do what they want in class.”

Jane Cronin explains that there are historical reasons for the difference in approach to pupils at secondary school level. “They are expected to behave, hand in their homework and are treated more as adults. This is partly because until over 15 years ago secondary education, post 14, was not compulsory and those taking it up were usually motivated learners,” she says.

As we all know, not every teenager wants to learn and many teenagers used to the more structured approach of UK schools will find the more relaxed familiarity of the Spanish classroom difficult to cope with.

In the UK: Behaviour is also a major issue in UK schools. Schools where behaviour is considered to be a concern are to have no-notice inspections and the coalition government has recently implemented increased ‘powers’ of search for teachers. The summer riots last year brought to a head the anxiety that older people have in the UK about young people and the misunderstandings that exist between generations.

The way forward

The report makes recommendations. Much of its content focuses on the uneven distribution of foreign students across schools. Not surprisingly, one of its recommendations is that pupils might be spread more equitably – a policy that would increase bussing between areas. In addition it is recommended that teachers should have better training to deal with these issues and that there should be opportunities for buddying between Spanish and newly admitted foreign students.

Jane Cronin feels that the first priority is the recognition of the problem by the authorities: “There is no real recognition of what is going on and there can be a tendency to take the view that as foreigners have chosen to come here then if they don’t integrate then that’s their own problem.” Jane also recommends that there should be more English speakers supporting pupils and enabling them to access their lessons and that vital information should be provided for parents in English.

Unfortunately for some it’s too late. However, there are many with positive experiences to share and for those who are starting out there is the opportunity to benefit from the best that Spanish education has to offer.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing my own experiences of enrolling my son in a Spanish school and will look at some of the issues which British parents face. Let’s hope that more of our children remember their school years in Spain for all the right reasons.

Some general tips:

It’s harder for teens – if you are considering moving a teenager into a Spanish school without any knowledge of the language you must all, as a family, be very committed and determined
Your attitude is vital – be positive yourself and open-minded and chances are your child will be too
Give time and support to your child – this goes for any parent and pupil across any culture and in any country
• Talk about it with your child well in advance and make the move a shared one – if they really don’t want to go you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it – a very reluctant participant can ruin it for everyone
Don’t leave it too late – a mid-year move is more distressing and unsettling than a September change over
The earlier the better – if you are considering a move, the younger your child the better
Learn Spanish yourself – not only are you setting a good example but it will help you to understand what is happening at school
Get lessons – if you can, pay for Spanish lessons for your child before moving out
Be proactive – if you don’t know, go and ask and if you can’t speak Spanish take a translator with you

This article is the first in a multi-part series on the education of expat children in Spanish schools. The second article is here: Starting children in Spanish schools: the big decisions

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3 Comments for “Expat kids in Spanish schools: The best days of their lives?”

  1. Lesley Ann Sharrock

    I have been in Spain for only two years and don’t have children on the Spanish system. However, I am currently tutoring several teenagers who are native English speakers but whose written English has suffered as a result of being at Spanish school. Many of them want to complete their education in the UK as they feel there is more opportunity for them there.

  2. 30% of Spanish students don’t complete secondary education and there are no Spanish Universities in the world’s top 100 – ask yourself why? Education along with productivity and labour laws is one of the three deep rooted problems that Spian has yet to resolve. My dear fellow ex pat parents, the solution is educate your children privately in Spain or chance it back in the UK in a State school. You have a choice, if you don’t like it – you don’t have to live in Spain.

  3. It would have been interesting to see what sort of attention these English-speaking children receive in their English classes. My understanding is that they are given the same lessons as the Spanish speaking students and do not fill any additional foreign-language requirement.

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