Steve’s sense of mischief must have come to the fore when he asked me to write this article; so before I write any more, I must point out that whilst everything written is true in my experience, there may sometimes be alternative points of view. For this reason I do not want to mention anyone or any institution by name, and agree that any sane publisher would reject the story as being too fantastical, let alone for any literary reason. I’m also trying not to generalise; this is our experience, no-one can take it away from us, but the experience of others will be different. (In the last few weeks we have met several ‘nomadic’ children, who have been to two of the same schools as our daughter, but in a different order).
When we arrived in Torrevieja just over 3 years ago, having pondered the move for several years, we decided to place our daughter, then nearly 7, in an international school. In retrospect, a Spanish state (‘publico’) school may have been better, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. We thought that the school would have a fairly even mix of Spanish and English pupils, with a fair sprinkling of other nationalities. In practice, English ones predominated, though not to the extent of other ‘international’ schools. The school provided a good grounding in immersion Spanish, and eventually our daughter graduated to the mainstream Spanish class, though because of the lack of fully Spanish children, it was not until three years later, when she went to a ‘publico’, that she really became fluent in the language. Lessons were about 30% Spanish, 70% English, and there were one or two inspirational teachers who taught her in English, who rescued the school, and our daughter, from total disaster.
The characteristics of the school then, as now, were:
- Spanish ownership which was totally ignorant of what British fee paying parents want.
- A culture of lies and obfuscation regarding all matters of organisation and planning.
- Contemptuous treatment of teachers, paying English teachers peanuts and telling them to leave when they complained that they could not live on the salary.
- Active discouragement of parents to meet each other, get involved in the school, or set up a Parent Teachers Association.
- A refusal to treat the children as anything more than academic machines, demanding one and a half hours a night homework from 7 year olds. Academic children like our daughter coped rather than thrived, one or two were asked to leave. Spanish in particular (not at immersion level) was taught in a dry, academic, enthusiasm killing manner, by teachers who often got very angry.
Bitter experience has taught the owners not to appoint a head teacher, however good he or she may be. They have learnt that head teachers have a distressing tendency to think that they are in charge, and to bring in their own ideas, which inevitably conflict with the main aims of the owners, which appear to be to retain power and to make money.
Around Easter in our daughter’s first year, we were astonished to be summoned to a parents’ meeting and introduced to the new head master, who would be starting in September (by chance he happened to be a friend of a friend in the UK). The headmaster was completely bilingual, came armed with an impressive array of the latest educational thinking, and he and his Spanish wife quickly became good friends of ours. Among promised changes were much more open access for parents to teachers, parents’ social events and Spanish classes, a Parents Association, and a generally far more holistic view of education. He was aided by some exceptionally able teachers, and for a few short weeks it seemed that the school was becoming a model of bilingual education. Alas, behind the scenes relationships were quickly deteriorating, culminating in the headmaster’s sacking on the penultimate day of term. On the last day of term parents besieged the school refusing to move until someone addressed them, and in a performance worthy of Cherie Blair, were eventually treated to an account of how the headmaster had let down the school, by another teacher. Protest meetings, threatened legal action and fee strikes went nowhere, and amid great discontent the new term started. The school was eventually taken to court, I believe, but as the headmaster’s contract was only temporary, the only thing he won was a few weeks of unpaid wages and a grudging apology.
The story gets much stranger; unknown to us, twins had started at the school a few weeks earlier, one boy, one girl, children of a gay couple. Biologically one man was the father of one child, the other the father of the second child; the surrogate mother lived in California. One February afternoon parents arrived at the school to collect their children, to find half a dozen television crews encamped on the steps, and a huge number of journalists. The next day the story was plastered over the front pages of all the Spanish national papers, and later reached some of the English ones; the gay couple had withdrawn their children from the school because of alleged homophobia, directed both at them, and more importantly, at their twins, by some members of staff, the owners, and some parents. Gay rights and homophobia were at the time big issues in Spain, and the couple had expertly used the media, not for the first time, to give them publicity. In the then febrile atmosphere anything that was said about the school was automatically believed, and we thought that education in Spain was, to put it mildly, exciting.
Not surprisingly, during that year, many parents removed their children from the school. At the end of the year, we did the likewise; despite the events described above, our daughter would probably have remained, were it not for two of the Spanish teachers, who frightened our daughter and made her fear contact with Spanish teachers and schools. This fear has only in recent months been overcome.
Here a short digression, about events which did not directly concern us; in a new venture between the sacked headmaster and his wife, and the gay couple, and one or two others, a new school opened a few months later in Elche, after one or two hiccups. After two terms the school was forcibly closed down by the authorities because the appropriate permissions and licences had not been applied for, and because of health and safety concerns. The school eventually closed down with big debts, mainly to parents in the form of prepaid matriculation and monthly fees, and as far as I know these have never been paid and court cases are awaited. A school of children had nowhere to go. The owners could have complied with the regulations, but apparently grew tired of their venture, and blamed parents and authorities for the disaster. They fell out eventually with the headmaster; we knew this because someone, presumably one of them, invented and forged his death notice in a car crash, and posted it on the internet! A teacher who left in acrimonious circumstances apparently found his photo, together with the Spanish equivalent for ‘wanted, paedophile’ posted in the area, and there are other similar stories.
Returning to events in humdrum Torrevieja, we did not send our daughter to the new school in Elche, because of the distance, but to the other international school in Torrevieja. I will spare you all a blow by blow description of exactly what happened, but by May of the following year (2005) we had to withdraw her from the school, completely socially traumatised. (I hesitate to use the word bullying, because we are still not certain of exactly what happened). These stories are rarely neat and tidy, but because of her intellectual and academic capacity (in our view only above average), aged 9, she had to be put in with a class of 11-13 year olds. Admittedly it was she, rather than the school, who wanted this, but in her own age group she was completely bored and received no stimulation. The teacher in the class of 11-13 year olds showed little interest in her, and while she coped academically, socially the older kids made mincemeat of her. Generally my impressions of the school were as follows; a dreadful standard of Spanish, because there were no Spanish children at the upper end of the school, combined with low general academic standards. Disproportionate attention was given to the many special needs children, at the expense of the more able children, yet it was not permitted for these special needs children to be disciplined properly, causing generalised behaviour problems. The school was and is overcrowded because of inability to secure new premises, and was and is treading a tightrope with the authorities that could lead to its closure (the latest news is that there should be new premises by Easter 2006). Probably the main factor in its favour is the resulting chaos if another couple of hundred children were unloaded on already over stretched local state facilities. Despite all this, the school owner, management and teachers mean very well, but are continually fire fighting, and frankly not up to the almost impossible challenge of running this school.
So seven weeks before the end of term, we were resigned to home schooling our daughter until the end of the academic year, but in a strange twist of fate, almost immediately the opportunity came to enrol her in a new tiny school in Santa Pola, formed mainly for refugees from the Elche school. She only attended for a few weeks, but within a few days, most of the behaviours which had made her prey to the bullies had been dealt with by one teacher who our daughter respected, and who was prepared to spend some time with her, by simply making her think about what other children thought of her behaviour; as parents we had tried to do this, but she would not listen. I remain very angry that no-one was interested enough, or had time to do this in her previous school. (In a Spanish school this kind of issue is dealt with by school psychologists, but this school did not have one).
Sadly bureaucratic problems resurfaced, and the school did not re-open in September 2005; almost as a last resort, and at very short notice, we had to enrol our daughter in a new Spanish state school opening in prefabricated classrooms in Mar Azul Urbanisation. To be honest we feared the worst, as our daughter had had a few problems, described above, and we had heard many stories of British children failing to thrive in Spanish schools. However, so far, this school has been one of the few rays of light in an almost completely unremitting gloom. The headmaster is completely dedicated to integrating the many nationalities (in my daughter’s class about 5 Brits, 1 Russian, 1 Ukrainian, 1 Swede, 2 Moroccans, 7 or 8 south or central Americans, and even 2 or 3 Spanish) and our daughter’s class teacher appears extremely sympathetic and skilled. There are regular school outings, good school meals, buses, immersion Spanish for non fluent Spanish speakers, and Saturday morning optional sports starting next term. The Ayuntamiento also provides, not through schools, heavily subsidised music, sport, drama, painting and chess classes, of a high standard.
If you have reached this far you may be thinking that the message is British education bad, Spanish education good, but the reality is far more complicated. I’ll try to draw things together by making a few statements about education in Torrevieja based on what I have seen and heard:
- Education for British children is currently generally disastrous, though some are doing well. Certainly the earlier the child attends a Spanish school, the more likely it is to work, but there is no guarantee. One of the problems is that at many Spanish schools there are very few Spanish children, and the Spanish teachers can become demotivated.
- Spanish educationalists firmly believe that British children have more integration problems than most other nationalities because of monolingual British culture, and because many of their parents make little effort to learn the language.
- Good international, bilingual schools are possible, but there just do not happen to be any on the southern Costa Blanca. British owners are too involved in running their schools rather than letting educationalists take over, and in general have tried to ignore regulations, rather than work alongside Spanish authorities (admittedly Spanish bureaucracy can be challenging!)
- Many British parents seem to care little about their children’s education, and behavioural problems are being exported from the UK to Spain. However, this is also the case with children from South/Central America, Russia, Eastern Europe and Morocco, as well as Spain itself.
- Spanish primary education is generally better thought of than Spanish secondary education. The quality of all the state schools in Torrevieja varies widely.
- Spanish education is very theoretical and does not serve less academic children well. It provides little in the way of hands on experience or work experience, but a lot of examinations. Qualification to be a teacher is based largely on exam performance rather than on teaching practice.
- There is no doubt that Spanish primary mathematics, particularly, is way ahead of that in the UK, and my daughter knows the name of every bone in the body, which my wife did not learn until she was at university. However, I have unanswered questions about whether teachers really try to teach children how to think, and whether they try to instil a thirst for knowledge.
There we are, that’s it! Our daughter is fine now, and I’m delighted at the level of her Spanish and her general progress. But what happens when she reaches secondary age in 18 months time? As yet we have very little idea.