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Education in Spain: What do they need to know?

What was the most useless lesson you were taught at school? Was it logarithms, algebra or how to use a slide rule? Did you really need to know about the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII’s six wives? The debate about what schools should teach has been going on for centuries.


Spanish curriculumEducation is a very powerful tool and the control of what the curriculum contains has worked normally calm people into a frenzy. Does Shakespeare have any relevance to our young people? Should schools be able to drop teaching the Victorians in favour of learning about Twitter? The debate goes on.

Now more than ever, it is difficult to decide what the curriculum should consist of. Our world changes so quickly that equipping our young people with what they need for the future is a shot in the dark.  There are many theories about what they should be learning. Most include reference to skills, concepts and personal attributes rather than selected pieces of knowledge. Learning ‘how to’ rather than learning ‘that’.

The English education system is constantly on the move and the curriculum is under review, yet again.  So what do other countries teach their children?

The curriculum around the world

Most countries agree on the same basic curriculum. This usually includes:

  • National languages
  • Mathematics
  • Science (sometimes including technology)
  • Art and music
  • Physical education (often including health education)
  • Some form of humanities

The way that different countries group these subjects varies. Some countries such as Finland and Northern Ireland rely upon cross-curricular themes such as ‘growth as a person’ and ‘cultural identity and internationalism’ where as other countries, such as Korea and Norway, still rely heavily on subject teaching.

Other countries, such as Sweden, have agreed goals and leave the rest to local communities to decide what should be taught whereas others have a prescribed curriculum and content.

Spain falls somewhere between the two with two thirds of teaching time being decided by the Ministry of Education and Science (MEC) and the rest being decided upon by the Autonomous Regions.

The curriculum in Spain

The official state curriculum at primary level includes:

  • The natural, social and cultural environment
  • Artistic education
  • Physical education
  • Spanish language and literature
  • Foreign languages
  • Mathematics
  • Religion (optional)

At secondary level it includes:

  • Spanish language and literature
  • Foreign languages
  • The regional language and literature of the Autonomous Community
  • Mathematics
  • Physical education
  • Natural sciences
  • Plastic and visual arts
  • Social studies
  • Geography and history
  • Technology
  • Music
  • Religion (optional)

At primary and secondary school level the cross-curricular themes of moral education, education for peace, for health, for the equality of the sexes, environment education and consumer education are introduced. Schools must offer Catholic religion but it is currently optional for students.

The curriculum at age three

“Turn to page 59 or página 59…” are words that still reverberate around Spanish classrooms. The prominence of the course book is evident in every year group in Spanish schools. Joseph, at three years-old, has already three packs of books of his own. One for each term. Admittedly they are not just about reading and writing and are full of pictures and activities. However, they still represent a very structured approach to learning that would be viewed with dismay  in many English nursery schools.

I flick through the manual and see what his ‘Nos gusta el colegio’ covers. He will be learning what school is like, who works there and the activities they will do in it. He will learn about the number 1, letters and horizontal and vertical lines. The subject matter is similar to what you might expect in England but the strategy for delivering it is very different. It also does not take account of the fact that Joseph can already count to 20. Of course, the fact that he will be learning these things in Spanish means that I’m not concerned at this stage that he might be bored. There is plenty to challenge him here, and his parents too.

I’m pleased to see that there is ‘material para la familia’ (education material for the family) among his books. There is a list of what he should know or be in the process of knowing, a recipe we could make and some games to play. I feel a touch of nostalgia when my dodgy translation reveals that the story at the back is the one and only ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Caperucita’.

But everyone speaks English

Most people would agree, the sooner you start to learn a language the better. However, schools in the UK do not have to teach a language until secondary school age. Proposals for a new curriculum will mean that primary schools will have to teach a language at least in the last two years. But is this too little too late?

One of the problems for English schools is that there is no consensus about what the second language taught should be. This means that entering each secondary school will be a few pupils with a little bit of French, a few with a little bit of Spanish and even some with some mandarin. And what will be the secondary school response to this? They’ll have to start teaching their chosen language from scratch.

Perhaps even more controversial is that in England you can drop learning a language in key Stage 4 – at 14 years of age. Not surprisingly, uptake of languages for GCSEs has been falling for some time with only 44% of English teenagers choosing this option in 2008. Hardly encouraging for international competitiveness.

The three year olds in Joseph’s class are already learning English. He brought his ‘English with Ellie’ CD home with him today. And, of course, the choice is easy, English has its place as the number one international language (at the moment). Perhaps it’s this obvious choice of language as well as the early start in learning it that makes us feel as though ‘everyone speaks English’.

However, they don’t. In fact once you move past the bars and restaurants in tourist areas where standard phrases are obligatory and the banks and solicitors who rely on it for trade you can be surprised at how little English many professionals speak.

Tina Sánchez Alfocea of Haygón School in Alicante explains that her Spanish students lack confidence when it comes to speaking and listening in English. This is an opinion endorsed by Gillian Greenwood, headteacher of Kings College Murcia: ‘They are more used to writing and reading English. The Spanish system seems to place less emphasis upon speaking and listening. That’s why some Spanish families choose to send their children to an international school which teach the curriculum in English.”

But what happens when English is your first language and you start studying it as a foreign language in school? This seems to have been an area of frustration for some English-speaking children. Struggling perhaps in Spanish classes they find themselves bored in English, “I’ve been up to the school lots of times. I just feel she’s wasting her time in the English lessons,” complains one parent. However, practice does vary between schools and some will allow students to use English lesson time according to their own needs.

Adding to the curriculum – parents at home

The good news is, that even if you don’t speak Spanish yourself, there are ways that you can help your child at home. Your child’s understanding of English, especially reading and writing, is just as important to develop as is their learning of Spanish.

Ways you can help…

  • Continue to read stories and books with your child in English – this will help develop their speaking, listening and reading skills using language beyond that normally used around the house.
  • Encourage them to write in English at home. You can involve them in writing for a purpose for example, shopping lists, recipes, notes to family members, lists and reminders.
  • Encourage them to write a diary, this is an excellent way of them keeping up a writing habit and having something to look back on as well.
  • You may need to help your child practice their spellings in English. The phonetic basis of English and Spanish are different. Learning to spell in one language does not mean you can spell in the other.
  • Teach them nursery rhymes and play language games such as I-Spy.
  • Tell or read traditional stories such as Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Involve them in activities where you are using language and maths such as cooking, shopping, planning a trip or visit, booking flights.

Of course, you will need to balance anything that you do with the amount of Spanish homework they have. Try to build in a regular routine that includes time for practicing English and perhaps they could teach you some Spanish as well.

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