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Spain V Britain Schooling and Culture – Do We Give A Damn, Really?

Here's something we often hear when deciding to up sticks and leave the UK for warmer climates, and in this case Spain. What the school's are like, and which are the best ones for my children? What you don't hear often

confusedHere’s something we often hear when deciding to up sticks and leave the UK for warmer climates, and in this case Spain. What the school’s are like, and which are the best ones for my children? What you don’t hear often however, is the answers – well not just one anyway, several, and they all differ. It’s not easy unless you know someone who has children already in the system, so you are left confused and unsure what to do! So what do you do?

Well… if you are like the majority of parents who have been through this, or are about to go through it, then you make yourself a stiff drink and park yourself in front of your PC to begin the daunting task of asking google targeted questions, using your finely-tuned parent/superhero skillset. There are 100’s of forums out there with 100’s of parents asking the same thing, while expecting to hear what others think in line with their own perceptions. But what parents really want to know is… will their child be receiving an education equal to or better than they would expect back home in ‘dear old blighty?’

The answer to that would depend on the opinion you already have on the educational system back in Britain really wouldn’t it. Because let’s be honest… it’s just not that cut and dry. First, it’s a different country and culture you are contemplating, second they speak another language, and third, no matter what you are expecting… your child is the one who will be attending the school system, not you.

Why would anyone contemplate schooling their child in a foreign country?

I guess the reason most decide to take their children to live abroad in the first place would be for the lifestyle, for others it could be work, and a smaller minority … simply because they can afford to do so. With the UK in the state that it seems to be in now… I would give the reason as mostly lifestyle – and hey, who could blame them.


I don’t actually have children of my own… but considering I was one once, I think that credits me with enough experience to talk on the subject. If I did have children, I certainly wouldn’t want them living in the UK a second longer than they had to either. I loathed my strict Roman Catholic education with an absolute passion, and I spent more time outside of the classroom than I did in it. In fact, my bad teachers taught me how to learn on my own. To all of my bad teachers… “Thank you.”

My nickname back then was “Why B., why?” (I asked a lot of why questions in case you were wondering, ones it seems my teachers didn’t have the answer to or couldn’t be bothered to explain).

Not all of my teachers were bad teachers doing a job they shouldn’t be doing, a few were real fighters for the cause, ones that to this day I will remember with fondness and admiration. Encouragers and inspirers! Whether you like it or not teachers can have an incredibly influential and lasting effect on a tiny mind – be that one way or the other.


When I was thirteen I was already employed – yes I attended school full time, but I also worked a few hours after school every day to earn a bit of pocket money for myself. That decision has been the cornerstone of my attitude toward work ever since. Life as a child all but ceased for me at that tender age, but in Spain, it seems children get to be children without all of the big city pressures they would undoubtedly face back home in todays world. They are out playing all day in the sunshine, and the tight yes, (but not so strict) catholic culture, means they also do most things as a family unit.

Catholicism in Spain means celebrating on the streets dressed in fancy clothes, not being dragged to church on a Sunday morning with your hair stuck to your head from your mother’s spit.

But… you knew there was a but coming right? BUT… are we just so used to our own lives that we view this rose-coloured Spanish lifestyle as such when really, it is not that different to our own in the grander scale of things? In the UK we as nationals are privy to many benefits in respect to lifestyle and standards of living. Yet poverty exists in both countries – we just don’t see it on a daily basis. Spain is no different, it just looks a lot prettier.

I’m about to play devils advocate here – or the messenger about to be shot at least.

This re-locating and schooling subject is a multi-faceted one, one which splinters off into so many directions that it becomes hard to remain focused on just the one. I didn’t realise just how big (or should I say touchy) this particular subject was until I began to ask friends who happen to also be parents with their children in the Spanish school system. I also decided to contact a friend in the UK who teaches pre-secondary classes there (just to get a better idea of both sides, and a fair base to begin the comparison). What I found out pretty early in my research was that the differences were quite stark, and right across the board too. But there were also many similarities that  were obvious to me as the ‘non-parent outsider’ that some parents seemingly or stubbornly ignore. We’ll get to that!

 So what do you do? Throw your kids in school and hope for the best? I’m guessing most will shout “No way José.” But if you are willing to take a friends word as the font of all knowledge and send your child to the school she or he raved about, then… it’s kind of ‘half throwing’ them in – wouldn’t you say?


I interviewed a small group of parents to see what it was or is like for them, and I have to say… on the one hand, it was not what I was expecting to hear, but on the other – I was far from shocked.

English children have complained of  a relentless ‘bully culture’ that exists in Spanish schools, bullying that stems from the child not being able to speak the language of their new classmates – teachers did nothing, other parents refused all knowledge, and the bullying continued.

But Kids will be kids right, and sorry if I say this… (here comes another but), some can be downright cruel little monsters – and nationality has no borders here when it comes to bullies. Kids are struggling to learn a new language that some parents can’t be bothered to learn. Now before you jump on me for that one. I heard that one from YOU parents talking about OTHER parents – more than once too. Now to me, doing this one thing alone would not only help your child to improve in school but in social settings. Integration is a priority. To integrate you need to be able to communicate. Surely the whole point here is to do what’s best for the kids right! Right? As parents this helps you too. Your integration is just as important, if not more so.

People in the UK complain about one thing day after day after day, and rightly so… And what is that thing? How foreigners arrive in THEIR country and don’t bother to learn how to speak THEIR language. So this is an issue here too. And it’s just as BIG! Hypocritical too by the way!

Teachers included have been serial offenders apparently – victimising English students or openly making fun of them in classrooms for not understanding a question put to them in Spanish – this is rare of course, but exists whether we like it or not. Others… are the complete opposite and go that extra mile to help the new children. BUT… they also have been witnessed as choosing to ignore (intentionally) their colleagues who teach in such a demeaning and often despicable manner. Pier pressure, hierarchy… who knows? But again… it exists in almost all schools around the globe in one form or other – Spain is no exception!

This can be said about all schools in all countries granted, however teachers in the UK often claim that they gain little respect in their roles, and often endure an underpaid and stressful role through sheer passion for the profession they chose. In Spain however, the teacher has more often than not been described as having an air of arrogance or importance about them, and the role itself is a highly respected one. Sounds a bit harsh doesn’t it! In my opinion it is rather, because I think teachers, good ones anyway should be regarded with the respect that they deserve. Bad ones with an attitude I have no time for.

So let’s move on to the parents…

Parent no.1:  I have lived in Spain for 7 years and I speak and write Spanish fluently. I often get called by British parents to go to the local schools to translate for them when they have been “summoned” for their child’s misbehaviour. I used to think it was just the British kids being picked on, because in many cases they have come into the system at a difficult age, often after the age of eleven. However, over time I have come to believe that in most, but not all cases, the fault lies almost entirely with the parents. The kids come to Spain, learn Spanish in schools, come home at night and its sausage, egg and chips followed Eastenders on the box. Many of the cases I have been involved in are similar, the kids just sit at the back of the class, do nothing all day because they are not integrating, cant understand the lessons, come home, cant do homework and lie that they have been given any (if the parents can be bothered to ask that is) –  then they sit and watch TV all night. Parents think, “I don’t need to learn Spanish, I’ll wait for Johnny to learn and he can translate for me”. Sorry, parents, its just not the way it works. I spent the first 3 years with just Spanish TV and subtitles to learn. I’m afraid that until parents wake up to their own responsibilities, nothing will change, just like in the UK. 

Parent no.2 (Has since left Spain after just six months in Spain and returned to the UK) – Both our children were at Spanish state school, the oldest had just started High School, the younger, primary. We found the primary school to be of high quality, however the lessons were all in Spanish and as a 4 year old she found it hard to adapt, however we were persevering and she was beginning to understand her teacher. However the secondary school was a different story! My daughter’s 1st year class was mainly made up of English children with a few Spanish. Many of these children had no interest in learning Spanish and even those who were fluent did not mix with Spanish children. The level of education was very low and discipline pretty non existent. In fact in the 6 months my daughter was in school, the only thing she did learn was Spanish. She worked very hard and had an excellent teacher who appreciated my daughter’s efforts and rewarded them. However the school was supposed to be bilingual, but this was not practiced. I realise that we, as a family, only had a short time in Spain, but I do believe that part of the problems we experienced were due to the non-mixing of English and Spanish people, including parents and children.

Parent no.3 Had this advice to give – To all the British parents out there, go for coffee in the mornings with the Spanish mums, get involved in the events at school. I went shopping with 2 mums about a year after we got here, as our children had birthdays around the same time, and we were doing a joint party for them at the school during one of the breaks. I learnt more in an hour’s shopping trip with these ladies than I had in a year with books/tapes etc… I also made two very good friends.                                                                                     

Granted, these are just three among many experiences out there, but they are experiences from the horses mouth nonetheless.

On average there are two to three British children in every Spanish classroom.  There are also three types of schools in Spain: public, publicly funded private schools, known as concertados, and private schools. Public schools are free of charge, while concertados are private schools that receive government funding in exchange for signing education agreements with the local authority. These schools have subsidised fees and you may find that they have better facilities than public schools, so they provide a good midway option between public and private.

Unlike the UK, an official league table of Spanish schools does not exist, well not as far as I know, and I dug pretty deep. Schools are usually recommended (as I mentioned before) by word of mouth, but what I did find was that El Mundo (elmundo.es) newspaper publishes a list of the 100 best private and concertado schools in the country and is a great place to start your own homework when making this decision on behalf of your child.


Local schools are filled on a first come, first served basis with the enrolment period happening early in the year, around March, and lasting for two months. If your child is entering secondary school, you will also need to have proof of convalidation. This is the process of having your child’s educational records verified by the Spanish Ministry of Education. This requires filling in an official form called the Modelo Oficial and this process can take between three and six months, so it would be wise to start proceedings prior to leaving the UK, because your child will not be allowed to start school without it.

So it pays to do your research. It also pays to do your research with an open mind and a modicum of understanding for the country you are planning to live in. If you get to know the culture and make the effort in the same way you would expect from others, you’ll do just great – and the initial shock will be softer in comparison for both yourself and your children.

Whatever you decide, be willing to accept all of the aspects that come with your decision – above all, make it a decision you chose for the right reasons. And if you decide on making Spain your forever home, treat it as you would your home, become a part of it – and enjoy the process as a new adventure.

Who doesn’t love an adventure?


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