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Kitting the kids out for school in Spain

Starting in a Spanish school? It’s not just about turning up on the day. And yet, many parents seem surprised that there is more to it than that.


Waiting at the school reception I hear English voices. They want to know what they should bring to school for their three-year-old daughter and they’re trying to explain how difficult it is for their nine year old to complete four pages of Spanish homework when she doesn’t speak Spanish.

It’s a bewildering experience for parents and children alike and there is so much room for misunderstanding. In this case the school administrator, who speaks English, is sympathetic, listens patiently and is very helpful. But that isn’t always the case. It occurs to me how useful it would be just to have some basic introductory information for parents of English pupils just to help them get started. Not an excuse for not learning the language but simply an acknowledgement that there are still families who are coming to Spain, enrolling their children in Spanish schools but have little to no understanding of the system.

So what might it have been useful for these parents to know?

Books and more books

One thing that characterises the child at Spanish school is the obligatory mochila (rucksack). Either on wheels or without wheels they can appear to be larger than the children themselves. And the reason for lugging these Spiderman / Mickey Mouse / Pocoyo monstrosities? A hundred weight of books.

Books dominate the life of the Spanish student. There is no doubt that the curriculum is far more tied to the course book than in an English school and this dependency comes at a price. There is a heavy start up cost to entering your child in a Spanish school. I worked out the total cost to date for Joseph:

Books = €75
AMPA (parent-teacher association) = €20
Lunches (two months) = €170
Class expendables = €50

That’s €315 altogether so far and I’ve still his babi (apron) to buy (around €15 I think). And I can only expect it to get worse. I’ve been told that €75 euros is a modest amount rising steeply for books in the secondary stage. I understand that there are subsidies available depending on personal circumstances and that some of this expenditure on books is due to be reduced. But at the moment be forewarned that the start of the school year needs a little financial planning.

Where you buy your books from will depend upon your school. The AMPA (parent-teacher association) shop sold us Joseph’s. I was lucky to get any at all as they should have been ordered at the end of the previous year. My heart sank with the announcement that there were none left in Torrevieja (a parent’s worst nightmare), but it rose a little as I was told to ‘wait a minute’ and flew sky high with the production of the much coveted set. I clasped them protectively all the way home.

Caroline Clinton’s two children have passed through the Spanish system. Having moved here when her eldest was one, she speaks with some passion about the search for books. “We used to dread it every year. We’d end up having to go to Carrefour four or five times to pick them up. There was always at least one or two that we couldn’t get at each visit and we’d have to go back to get them. In the end we started going to a small book shop and handing over the list. It was bit more expensive but at least they’d get everything for us ready for the start of school.”

Her children grown up, there is a sense of relief when Caroline now enters Carrefour towards the beginning of term. Book chasing is one experience she really doesn’t miss.

On the buses

There are at least 10 buses that arrive outside Joseph’s school with their crocodiles of children and numerous bus ladies. The start of the school day is certainly not a calm and relaxed affair. As the buses pull up you are well advised to reroute to the other side of the road to avoid having your toes squashed by a mochila or two.

At least, however, there isn’t the double parking, beeping of horns and irate neighbourhood watch that characterises the entrance to most UK schools. Instead the policia local stands at the crossing and cars are shunted into side roads leaving the entrance free for the convoy of buses.

Overall the bus service seems to be a strength within the Spanish system, at least here in Valencia. Free to those living more than three kilometres from the school, the children are supervised and even the youngest among them seems to be a confident passenger.

Equipment you need

In the second week of term we were called to a meeting at Joseph’s school. Unsure what to expect, we were ushered into his classroom and the teacher went through some of the basic items we needed to provide. The list included:

• A packet of baby wipes and kitchen roll – presumably they use these for all the children gradually throughout the year – a practice I’ve known in UK schools too.
• Some family photographs – part of the curriculum for this term.
• A babi which I now understand to be a cover-all apron and available from the school.
• A bottle of water every Monday with his name on it.
• A change of clothes for those little accidents.

We were told that Monday and Wednesday were the days for physical education and that on Wednesday they should bring a piece of fruit to eat at break time. Nothing too surprising here. However, a little more unexpected was the request for €50 to cover dispensable items during the year. This to be paid into a bank account set up by one of the parents.

I actually have no problems with this as I would rather pay one lump sum than be constantly digging into my pocket throughout the year. However, I did wonder what some UK auditors might make of such a practice!

To dine or not to dine

At three years old Joseph still seems so little and to stay in school from 9.00 am until 4.30 pm is such a long time. However, we made the decision to let him stay for his lunch. At home he has no one of his own age to play with and there is only the opportunity to speak English. We felt it would do him good to have this additional time to socialise and practise his Spanish.

The arrangement for paying followed a pattern we’ve encountered before. We were given the bank account number, went to the bank, handed over the money and returned to the school with the receipt. I make a cost comparison with English school dinners. Here we are paying approximately €80 a month. In England it’s around £1.60 per meal which is £64 a month. Not a lot of difference price wise but I am impressed by the menu he brings home and the idea that there is a daily serving of salad.

We’re paying not only for the food but also the supervision. It’s a two and a half hour lunchtime – an expanse of time that would turn the stomach of most UK lunchtime staff. Include the cost of childcare and it’s really quite good value for money.


The Asociación de Madres y Padres (AMPA) is a parent-teacher association equivalent that seems to hold a high status within the school. Membership costs €20 a year but does lead to a discount on resources and a reduction in fees for after-school clubs.

Caroline has been impressed by the range of after-school options her sons were offered: “They’ve been involved in all kinds of activities. One of my sons took part in a rowing club and ended up rowing for Torrevieja competitively.” However, when it came to football she found it very difficult to get her boys into a team. Sometimes it’s not what you know…

I notice that for €20 Joseph could take part in multiple sports, ICT, English, dancing and taekwondo. We’ll wait a little longer though before extending his school day until 5.30 pm.

Talk to teacher

It’s reassuring to know that there is a slot every week when the teacher is available for parents who have any concerns. For Joseph this would be during Thursday lunchtime. This practice of allocating a time seems to be common across schools and has been appreciated by the parents I have spoken to.

The dreaded word… homework

Lots of it and guess what – it’s those books again. The verdict seems to be that Spanish homework involves lots of repetitive written exercises. So, if you want to be able to help them, your own Spanish classes should start now. Besides, what better way to show them that learning is lifelong and that you are prepared to sit down, get your books out and be a student too.
Some tips

• Try and get your book list in good time.
• Consider using a small bookshop if the prospect of Carrefour makes you rather queasy.
• Don’t write your child’s name in the book before the start of term. There are often last minute changes of course book.
• Let your child watch some Spanish television – they’ll want to talk about the latest programmes with their friends.
• Budget for the start of the school year as it can be expensive.
• Consider letting them stay for lunch as it’s a time to socialise as well as eat.
• Check the time when the teacher is available and make use of it if you have any questions.
• Take a translator with you to any introductory meeting if your Spanish is basic – it’s important that you are clear about what is expected.

This article is part of a multi-part series on the education of expat children in Spanish schools. The first is here: Expat kids in Spanish schools: The best days of their lives?

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