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Starting up and settling in at school in Spain

We’ve all heard the story. The eager five year old comes back from the first day of school having survived the experience and expresses with surprise ‘I have to go back tomorrow as well?’ And the next day… and the next day…


No matter how much we prepare our children and ourselves, starting school is quite a traumatic experience. For the child it is the chance to be the big boy or girl, to meet new friends and learn numbers and letters. But it’s also the scary big building that keeps them separate from mummy and daddy for more hours than they can count. For mummy and daddy it’s the end of their reign over the child’s world. Now they must jostle with Miss and Pablo/Peter for attention. A whole new experience that they’re not part of.

It’s even more worrying when it involves speaking in a different language and entering into a system with which you’re not familiar. You can’t rely on neighbours to let you know when to start or what you should take. Everyone may seem to know what’s going on, except for you. How can you prepare your child when you haven’t got a clue yourself?

Here I describe my own experience of my son Joseph’s first days at school and reflect on the best age for starting a new school in a new country.

Starting school

“His teacher will ring you in September to tell you when he’ll be starting”.

We’d have liked something a little more definite to plan towards. But sure enough, at the beginning of the second week of September we had a phone call. I didn’t understand everything his teacher said but picked up that his hours would be 9.00 to 11.00 for the first two weeks and that he should bring a change of clothes, something to drink and a snack to eat.

On Thursday September 10 our little boy grew up. We jostled our way through the lines of children exiting from school buses to join the other parents outside the school entrance. I was amazed to see how confident the children seemed and as the door was opened the majority marched in and stood in line as if they’d been doing it since birth. In stark contrast to the disorderly processions at every other Spanish venue I have been to.

At this point we realized our first mistake. All the other children had come equipped with a mini back pack. The children linked together in line grasping the back pack of the child in front. Already tearful, Joseph’s troubles were added to by the ignorance of his parents.

At last Joseph was prised away from us and we made our getaway. On our return we weren’t surprised to be told that he’d spent most of his first two hours at school crying. The red rims told it all. However, he seemed quite happy to run around with his new friends for the next hour and a half whilst we waited to speak to his teacher. A very short conversation for us but one in which we gathered that Wednesday was fruit day, we would be informed about a parents’ meeting by letter and that was when we could buy his books.

We were given a very lengthy form to fill in ‘Ficha Inicial de Información Familiar’. Basically an everything-there-is-to-know about-you-and-your-mother form. For example:

Relationships with his mother are good – yes/no
Only mother contributes to the family budget – yes/no

And so on. There were lots of very sensible questions too about what your three year old can and can’t do. However, it can’t be completed in a spare 10 minutes.

At the end of Joseph’s first week he was no longer crying and was happy to join his peers in line with his very own back pack. As the only English-speaking parents, everyone had been helpful and welcoming to us and I loved the ‘sunny’ atmosphere of the school playground with its musical bell. So refreshing to have ‘The winner takes it all’ announcing the start of the school day.

Top Tips

• Make sure your three year old has a back pack – some older children have trolleys and then revert again to back packs in upper primary and secondary.
• Be prepared for ‘on costs’ you will have to pay for books and lunch (if they stay) but at least in most schools you don’t have to fork out for uniform just yet.
• Don’t expect to have leave of your three year old from day one. If you have work commitments you will need to source additional childcare for some time. A flexible nursery might help with the transition.
• Find out the times when the teacher is available. Most schools have a slot set aside for this and don’t be put off by the language barrier. If your Spanish is weak take someone with you to make sure your ignorance doesn’t stand in the way of their progress.
• Do try and greet people. This can be a challenge to the English reserve but is an important acknowledgment that we’re in Spain.
• Make sure you grasp the name of your child’s teacher – pointing just won’t do.

When’s the best time to move?

Considering bringing your family to Spain? I spoke to a group of young English girls who demonstrated quite clearly why moving teenagers is perhaps not a good idea.

Roxanne Pilling (18) was the oldest to move. At fourteen she was unhappy at her new school from the start. ‘I wanted to come to Spain with my family. I just didn’t realize how hard starting in a Spanish school was going to be’. She couldn’t settle and found herself suspended twice because, as she sees it, ‘I just didn’t understand what was going on.’ Roxanne didn’t keep her feelings to herself, “I used to have a go at my dad for bringing me here. But it’s OK now. I’ve got the job that I always wanted to do and a boyfriend. I was going to go back to the UK in July but I could stay here forever now.”

There are similar stories of disaffection and disillusionment from Rebecca Minney and Jayne Robinson. Rebecca’s family came to Spain when she was 12 and Jayne’s when she was 10. At the age of 10 Rebecca found learning Spanish much easier. However, at secondary school she did not make the progress expected. ‘You could choose to sit at the front and get on with your lessons and be a geek or sit at the back out of the way of the teacher and mess around. In the end I transferred to a British school. The students there spoke English and I really enjoyed it. I still have Spanish friends but I’ve made them outside of school.’

Rebecca ended up repeating two years at secondary school. She didn’t feel that she received the help she needed and even as she learnt the language, the technical vocabulary used during lessons was too difficult for her to understand. “I couldn’t wait to leave.”

In contrast are the accounts of two families whose children started at a younger age.

Julie and her daughter Emma have nothing but praise for the Spanish system. They moved to Spain in 2004 when Emma was seven. Although she was held back a year before transferring to secondary school she felt this was a bonus rather than a handicap, ‘It meant I could catch up and when I moved to secondary I found that lots of my previous classmates had been held back a year there anyway. And they are Spanish. It’s not such a big deal.”

Similarly Natasha Moon is happy with the education that her daughter Poppy and son Callum are receiving: “There were a few issues for Callum initially. He was six years old when we moved and had just done a year in a UK school. But the issues weren’t particularly to do with the school. There were things happening at home that were impacting on him. The school was great and helped him to manage his behaviour. I found it particularly useful that there was a time every week that I could go and see his teacher.”

Poppy had no problems at all. At three years old she was ideally placed to learn Spanish and quickly adjusted to her new environment.

The message seems to be clear, the older your child the harder it will be. For a teenager moving into a new system experiencing a different culture and not speaking the language, the drop-out rate is high. But what if you’ve no option but to move your teenager? We look at the international alternative next week.

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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