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Education in Spain, an international alternative

So you’ve made the decision. You’re moving to Spain and bringing your family with you. Perhaps with two children, you have one at primary school and one at secondary. The estate agent has assured you that education in the area is bountiful and good. What should your next step be?


International schools in SpainAccording to every school I asked the response was… think again!

If your child is young enough then it is likely that they will pick up Spanish quickly and integrate well into a Spanish school. However, if they are older or have special needs the outlook is much less favourable. But what if you are already here and your child hasn’t settled or you have a very compelling reason to move?

International Schools are an established alternative to Spanish state education. Dotted across the country, they teach the UK national curriculum in English and enable young people to study ‘A’ levels which are still the main currency needed for entry to universities in the UK. Of course, they are fee-paying so are only an alternative for those who have the resources. However, for some children and their families they have proved to be a lifeline.

I asked some international schools ‘why do children transfer from the state system?’

My child might want to return to the UK

Scenario – The children have been in Spanish school for a number of years. They speak fluent Spanish, they have integrated well. However, in year ten their parents suddenly realize that their children are not going to come out of school with the qualifications they need.

Perhaps parents realize that they might want to return to the UK or that job prospects in Spain mean that their children have got little opportunity for work. What can they do?

International schools can enable young people to pick up some last minute qualifications. Mr and Mrs Galbraith were not totally displeased with their sons’ Spanish secondary school but they suddenly felt anxious about their prospects when they left school, “with the economic down turn we weren’t sure if the opportunities were going to be there for them and so we wanted to make sure they had the right qualifications to enable them to move back to the UK if they wanted.”

They made the choice of moving them to El Limonar in Villamartin  and have been delighted with the progress they have made.

My child has special needs

What seems clear is that the concept of differentiation is very differently applied in Spanish schools to schools in the UK. Whereas it is expected that in the UK lessons are adapted according to the needs of individuals with children having individual targets and education plans, this is not usually the case in Spanish schools. The fact that pupils might repeat a year provides some form of opportunity for children to catch up. But what about those who never will?

“I’ve had parents coming to see me and their child has a statement of special educational needs in the UK. I tell them to think carefully about any move.” Explains Elaine Blaus, headteacher of the British School of Alicante.

But what if they have moved already or simply ‘have not thought things through’? Mar Azul has often hit the headlines due to its difficulties in achieving official recognition. However, the school does offer places for children with special educational needs. In fact 40% of their current pupil population have SEN. The fact remains that it is hard to see what options would be available to many of their pupils if they did not exist.

“We spend a lot of time on the emotional and social needs of our students,” director Rachel Pestell explains. “Sometimes there are a lot of issues to deal with before these children can even begin to learn.”

Gillian Greenwood, headteacher of Kings College Murcia also emphasizes the crucial role of personal, social and emotional education – an area of school life that she feels is better catered for in the international school. “Not all Spanish schools place the same emphasis on discipline and manners. We soon see a big difference in the behaviour of pupils once they transfer,” she says.

My child is finding the language difficult

It might be true of younger children but not all secondary age pupils can cope with immersion into another language. Tracey Dawkins, a parent of two children at The British School of Alicante puts it like this: “Ask yourself how you would cope if you were put into an office where no one spoke English and expected you to complete the work? How would you feel?”

“Young British people can easily not feel part of anything,” Sue Morgan headteacher of El Limonar International school explains. “They don’t know where they belong or have any real sense of community. The school becomes the centre of their world. It is just such a relief for them to be able to study somewhere where they can make themselves understood.”

There are mixed opinions about the level of support provided for English pupils who don’t speak Spanish in Spanish schools. Perhaps a fair assessment is to say that it is ‘patchy’ and that certainly parents shouldn’t rely on Spanish schools to fill the gaps.

Everything was fine at primary school but at secondary…

Every person I spoke to was complimentary of the experience their children had had at primary school level. However, many had found the college-type environment of the secondary school more difficult to adjust to in Spain. In some cases, the presence of large numbers of mono-lingual English students makes it almost impossible for Spanish teachers to teach effectively.

Mr. and Mrs. Ford had been very satisfied with the Spanish education their children had received at primary school: “Charlotte had always had very good reports at her junior school. Then when she moved up to secondary we didn’t recognise her first year report. It just didn’t sound like Charlotte. She seemed to feel intimated by some of the others in her class. The teachers were on short-term contracts and we did not feel that the discipline was as it should be.”

They made the decision to move Charlotte and haven’t looked back since. Her brother is still in his Spanish primary but is likely to join her rather than transferring to the local secondary.

Which is right for you and your child?

As Mrs. Galbraith points out: “It’s all down to the individual and the support of their families.” There is no blue print for what the right choice will be and families can only make the decision of an international school or a state Spanish school based upon their own circumstances and the personalities of their children. However, you might want to ask yourself some basic questions – the answers should point you in the right direction:

  • Is my child young enough to cope with the complete change of environment and will they have time to pick up the language?
  • Does my child’s personality mean that they have the confidence to cope with the changes and settle quickly?
  • What are our plans for the future? Are we intending to stay in Spain long term?
  • Does my child’s ability mean that they are unlikely to struggle with learning needs?
  • Have I the time and commitment to help maintain their reading and writing in English at home?

If you answer ‘Yes’ to all of these then a Spanish State school is a good alternative. If your answers include a ‘No’ then you might want to consider an international school. However, the cost of this commitment and the fact that the majority of international schools are selective, might mean that the best solution is to remain in the UK.

Advantages of an international school

  • The curriculum is delivered in English (can also be a disadvantage depending upon your future plans)
  • The qualifications are usually recognized by UK universities (as above)
  • The approaches the school takes to curriculum delivery, parental involvement, and teaching styles may feel more familiar and comfortable
  • They keep first language skills going i.e. writing and reading in English
  • Non-Spanish speaking parents can feel more able to access information


  • They are fee-paying
  • Most of them are selective and do not accept pupils with learning needs
  • Depending upon the age of pupil, there may be less opportunity for integration
  • There may be a very high turnover of pupils during the year
  • Their friends might be spread out over a wide area
  • They are not immersed in Spanish culture and language to the same extent


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