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Inside a Spanish school

Twenty eager faces. A calm and welcoming atmosphere and not a CCTV camera in sight. That was my initial impression of the class of 15 year olds at IES Haygón School in Alicante.


InstitutoI had been fortunate to make contact with Tina Sánchez Alfocea, an English teacher at the school. Tina had been enthusiastic about my request to visit, meet her students and ask her some questions. I wanted to see for myself what the inside of a Spanish secondary school looks like and test out some of the anxieties that parents of foreign students have.

If you have been following this series of features you will know that many British and other expat parents find themselves in a dilemma. Should their children attend an international school or enter the Spanish system? For some there isn’t an option. The fee-paying alternative of an international school can be well out of bounds. However, even for those who can afford it, there are some persuasive arguments for choosing a Spanish school.

“English families should try and integrate,” explains Tina. “The methodology might be different but we offer a good education in a positive atmosphere and young people benefit from learning how to survive in this new environment.”

From the moment I enter the school grounds, I never feel that ‘survival’ is an issue. The atmosphere is relaxed. The headteacher warmly welcomes me. I can see no evidence of bad behaviour or of bullying and I can hear no raised voices. I know that there have been incidents of aggression in the past and that my visit is brief but my first impressions are very positive.

Haygón school has no English students at present. However, they do have a wide variety of other nationalities, many from Eastern Europe, South America and North Africa. The school has a mixed catchment that does include areas of deprivation and the community has suffered from some problems caused by drugs. It is a school not unused to controversy and challenge.


The atmosphere is definitely more relaxed than in its English counterparts. The students I speak to look aghast when I explain that their English peers wear uniform. They listen to me attentively but I get the impression it’s because they want to rather than because they have to. The atmosphere is chatty but there is no rudeness or back chat just a dialogue, if a little hesitantly, in English.

As I walk around with Tina students stop to ask her questions and chat amicably. The atmosphere is perhaps similar to that of a sixth form college in England. But I do suspect that they know their boundaries. Pupils reluctant to sit at the front of the class do so when asked and a pupil who tried to sneak through the gate at the entrance complies with Tina’s request to go back inside.

The school does have its share of challenging pupils and not every student is now a willing learner. But as Tina points out: “There have always been students who aren’t interested and always will be. For those who aren’t as interested it is important that we give them a basic education while also helping them to develop skills in practical areas that interest them.”

The school does have its own behaviour policy. Tina is keen to emphasise that this takes a positive approach. “We did have some difficult students but when we asked for help from the department of education at the town hall they provided us with advice and support. Some extra staff were able to come in to help work with us.”

The school now issues parents with their expectations for behaviour. In the end, as with all schools in whatever country you might live in, support from parents is a crucial ingredient.

One change after another

Differences there might be, but it’s striking how many similarities the English and Spanish systems share. One of these is that both English and Spanish teachers experience the pressure of constant change directed from government departments. Entering the staffroom, there are no teachers sat around sipping coffee. Instead, a large table is surrounded by teachers in debate during a snatched break time meeting.

Tina explains that the ‘administrator’ does not allow enough meeting time and so they must find what opportunities they can. PPA time (Planning, Preparation and Assessment time – a 10 percent legal requirement in UK schools) has evidently not been adopted here yet.

So what about training? Tina explains that generally teachers place their request for training with the administrator. The extent to which they do this very much depends upon the individual teacher. However, they do have to accrue a number of ‘credits’ over a period of years in order to get a pay increase – a powerful motivator in any line of work. I get the impression that the administrator is a pretty influential individual.

Plenty of programmes

I very much appreciated the time given by the headteacher of the school to answering my questions. I was particularly keen to hear about the support offered to new entrants with language needs and those with special needs.

It was surprising that in a school of 700 there were so few with physical disabilities and severe learning needs. As in the UK, special schools exist but the expectation is that mainstream schools will take the majority of pupils with learning and physical needs.

There is support for pupils with behavioural needs. Each secondary school has its Departmento de Orientación in which the educational psychologist and their team reside.

I could not keep track of the number of special ‘programmes’ that I was told existed in the school. But it was evident that they are anxious to find ways of dealing with the issues they are faced with. In common with British schools the healthy eating agenda and gifted and talented are also high on the agenda. But what about language support?

I was told about the programme PASE which enables additional support to be given to those entering the schools with little or no Spanis. Of course, any programme will struggle to provide the degree of language needed in a short space of time to enable pupils to access the curriculum. I suspect new entrants still struggle.

IES HaygonTeaching methodology

In Spain, course books are a mainstay of the curriculum. Any parent who has had to pay out €200 plus will confirm this. Overall teachers teach to the book and with far less practical application than you would find in a UK school.

In contrast, teaching practice in the UK has never been under such close scrutiny. The expectations of what a teacher must include during a lesson are enormous. This is not necessarily a good thing. The pressure that teachers and students are under in UK schools can also be detrimental to health and well-being. It should be remembered that the UK does not do well on some international studies for exactly that reason. Our own anxiety to increase standards can put undue pressure on our pupils. Perhaps we should learn to be a little more relaxed.

A new innovation that Haygón is trying is teaching some subjects, such as maths, in English. This is certainly a challenge for Tina who must provide some of the units of work. However, she sees it as a very exciting opportunity to bring English to life and make learning it more fun.


In most cases those children who go to the local primary schools move on to the local secondary schools. What is surprising is how few ‘feeder’ schools a secondary school has. Whereas in the UK you might expect a large secondary school to have upwards of six feeder primary schools Haygón has two.

As in the UK pupils are selected first according to catchment area. In theory if a parent wanted to go to another school and they had places, they could. The practice is rare. The transition arrangements between schools seem to be less well-developed. The headteacher explains that although there have been some attempts to establish greater dialogue between the schools the practice is still in its early stages.

A little more understanding

Spain and Britain, being only two hours away by plane, makes it easy to forget just how different our cultures can be. Understanding these differences can help both adults and children integrate so much better. It is about local knowledge. For example, we discuss how different the systems are for queuing in Spain and England. In England we stand rigidly in line. In Spain you ask who the last person is before you and then wander around and talk to who you will in the knowledge of when your turn will be.

Similarly there are differences in our school systems but there is not necessarily a right and wrong. Although there has been enormous investment in education in the UK much of this has been used up by quangos, unproductive inspection regimes and ill-founded national strategies. We do have some wonderful practice but equally we have made some grave mistakes. The Spanish system is learning and changing. Perhaps not quickly enough for some. My visit showed an openness and willingness to learn but also a sense of bafflement and frustration in dealing at the chalk face with the issues of society.

The last word with the students

They listened politely and tried to find the confidence to speak in English. Some did it very well. But what really seemed to interest them was when I talked about the experiences of English teenagers arriving in Spanish schools. Their faces demonstrated a shared teenage ‘angst’ at the idea of leaving friends and family behind and arriving in a new country where you didn’t speak the language. They could imagine how that might feel and perhaps understand then why these same teenagers might not be the best students in their classes. Different country, different language, different culture it might be, but teenagers finding their feet is a shared ‘groan’ at the adult world wherever you might be.

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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