Schools advisor Bridget Nelson on the Catalan education system and choosing the right school for your child
Bridget Nelson runs Planet English in Sitges, a pretty coastal town just South of Barcelona. Planet English has been successfully running a Morning activity club for children between 2 and 6 since 2007. It was set up by two qualified and experienced primary teachers and since then other experienced educators have joined the team.
Bridget has an honours degree in primary education from the UK and has been teaching young people between the ages of 2 and 18 for thirty years. Here she gives Lucas Fox her opinions on the schools system in Spain, how to choose the most suitable educational establishment for your child, focusing on the area of Sitges and the wider region of Catalunya.
CF: What are the options for families moving to Catalunya from abroad in regards to schooling for their children?
BN: They can choose between the State system which offers education from 3 – 18 years, or the private system which includes the many International Schools and also Foreign language schools such as the German School or the Japanese School. There is also a middle option of State funded schools which are privately run but receive funding from the Government and so are quite closely controlled. The majority of these have a religious foundation.
CF: What age do children start school in Catalunya?
BN: Children are not legally obliged to start school until they are 6, but the reality is that most parents take up the school place at 3 because they are working and also want to ensure a place in the school of their choice.
CF: In your opinion what are the main advantages and disadvantages of sending children to a local school or international school?
BN: International Schools generally have better facilities, in theory, but not always the case – smaller class numbers and teachers who have been trained in child–centred education. Of course the language is an important factor especially for families who expect to return to their country. For non-English speaking parents wanting their children to attain a high standard in English – it’s also probably the best option. Disadvantages are that they are generally not so well integrated into the local community – especially in Barcelona, and probably don’t follow local culture or traditions so much. State Schools on the other hand, live their local culture to the full, but the class sizes can be quite big and in general educational methods are still quite traditional and in my opinion, not very child-centred. The quality of the teaching is very varied – especially in Secondary education. Children who go to the local state school probably pick up Castellano and Catalan much quicker than children who go to International Schools.
CF: How do you advise parents to choose the right school for their child?
BN: Choosing the right school is a very difficult decision to make and will depend on factors like: how long you plan to stay in Catalunya, where you will be living, your budget, whether you have to travel a lot for your work and also on the personality of your child.
Whilst opting for the state system is the quickest and best way to integrate into the local community, it does have its disadvantages. Compared to schooling in the North of Europe, the school day is very long and can be quite boring with a huge emphasis on using textbooks. The belief that children only learn Catalan is a complete myth however as the language mostly used in the playground is Castellano and by the end of their education the children speak both languages fluently.
International Schools tend to be more child-centred and usually have better facilities but can be very expensive and don’t always maintain the staff stability that state schools can boast. For bright children, there is probably more scope for them to be stretched in International Schools which offer a wider range of subjects and more after school activities.
My advice to people moving here is to think very carefully about their long term plans. If they are looking for a change of lifestyle by moving here, or if they think they will be here for a long time, it is worth trying the Catalan system. The education system of a country is a reflection of the country itself so it is the best way to become part of the Catalan way of life, warts and all. The sooner your child (and you) becomes exposed to the language, the quicker you will start to settle in. If your circumstances are different and you foresee travelling quite a lot, or moving again in a few years, then an International School will provide more stability for your child. It’s worth remembering that any decision you make doesn’t have to be for life: children are very resilient and can cope with changing school although as a teacher I really don’t recommend playing musical schools.
CF: How do people apply for international schools?
BN: International Schools have their own application system- the best thing is to phone the school, arrange a visit and they will tell you the rest. Some schools have got a waiting list so it’s a good idea to touch base with the school as soon as possible.
CF: For people opting to send their children to local schools how many places are there and how does the application process, point and lottery system work?
BN: If you are registered at the Town Hall, the local education authority is obliged to provide your child with a school place from 3 years old. You can choose which school you prefer, but don’t always get a place in your first choice school. The application process is quite complicated and all the documents are in Catalan but the OAC can help you with this. Details on this are in the “ Application Process” on this website.
CF: How do people choose their schools? Is there any ranking system?
BN: Choice of school is a very personal decision. I can only speak for Sitges and a little bit for San Pere where schools come in and out of fashion. Catalan families often opt for the school right in the centre, especially if their parents and grandparents also went to the school. The prospect of having a new school building within a few years or special language schemes in any one school are also factors which influence people’s decisions. Although all the schools in Sitges are now very multi cultural, CEIP Maria Ossó and CEIP Agnés probably have a higher percentage of people from Northern Europe and North America.
CF: Once a child has a place at the school, what is the process prior to starting and how do the first few weeks work for very young children (i.e. 3 year olds)?
BN: There are a few weeks where people can try and argue their case for a place in any school, and there are sometimes some changes, but the definitive list comes out in May. You are then invited to go along to your school and fill in all the necessary forms and hand in things like vaccination certificates, photos etc. Every school has its own induction system. Usually the class is divided and mornings or days are staggered for the first week. After this though its business as usual for your three year old : 9 – 12-30 and 3 – 4.30! If you are lucky you may get an understanding teacher who doesn’t mind you sending your child for the mornings only for a while.
CF: What advice would you give to best prepare a child for starting school in Catalunya?
BN: To prepare your child for starting any school I would advise the parents to start talking to them about the whole thing quite a long time before. Go and have a look at it from the outside, involve them in the process of buying their school bag, school shoes etc. Talk to them about what kind of things they will be doing Try and make sure they are as independent as possible when they start as regards personal hygiene , and don’t send them to school in trousers or shoes they can´t put on and take off themselves. Obviously it’s better if the child has been exposed to Catalan and / or Spanish so a Catalan babysitter prior to starting school is not a bad idea. If all else fails don´t forget the cartoons on Catalan TV !! Nowhere near as good as the UK’s CBeebies for example but… as parents you will also be faced with all the school vocabulary in Catalan – painting apron, snack bag etc so invest in a good dictionary or better still make friends quickly with someone at the school gate who will help you. The most important thing is for you to be confident and positive about the experience. On day one – hand over your child with a cheerful smile and then run away before bursting into tears!
CF: Do you have to pay for books and materials and if so approximately how much?
BN: Yes. It´s usually the Parent Association AMPA who organises the buying and distribution of school books. At my children’s schools we pay 20 € per family per year to join the AMPA, around 60 € for materials and between 80 €and 300€ for books Some schools run a recycling system or organise a second hand book market to try and ease the cost. School trips and school camp are extra.
CF: What hours do 3 years olds do? Can they come home for lunch or do they have to stay at school?
BN: I think nearly all schools are 9 – 12.30 and 3 – 4.30 for children in the three pre-school years. Most schools offer a service from 8 or 8.30 in the morning and after school for working parents or families with older children. Your child can stay for lunch or come home but packed lunches are not an option. Most schools allow you to put your child in for lunch on odd days.
CF: For children who stay at school for lunch, what do they do in the lunch break?
BN: It depends on the school. Lunchtime activities are usually run by the AMPA. Typical activities are library, video, extra English , craft activities, theatre and sports competitions like basketball tournaments etc.
CF: Is there a set curriculum for 3-6 year olds?
BN: There isn’t a set curriculum – schools follow guideline set down by the Ministry of Education about the skills they should be aiming towards which in P3 are largely to do with socialisation, sharing, looking after their materials etc. Most schools seem to work exclusively from activity books. Schools in Sitges have ‘Sitges’ as a subject and study the names of the giants, local fiestas etc. A big difference from British schools for example is that your child will learn to read and write first in CAPITAL LETTERS and then at age 6 go straight into joined up cursive writing.
CF: How much sport is played at local schools?
BN: My children have 2 P.E. lessons a week which I think is pretty normal. Preschool children seem to have Psicomotricidad which is all about developing body skills, and then later P.E. lessons are nearly almost all based on games skills. Swimming is usually offered a various stages during their school life, and in Sitges children in Year 5 and 6 do sailing. Creative movement or dance is sometimes included in PE lessons but school gyms are very poorly equipped and I have never heard of a large apparatus lesson with ropes, beams, a- frames etc
CF: What after school activities do local schools offer?
BN: In Sitges for example, the Patronato de Deportes organises after school sports clubs or football or basketball, and the various AMPAs organise activities such as extra English, theatre, extra maths etc. There are also lots of other after school activities such as gymnastics, ballet, music etc organised by private enterprises.
CF: How do parents communicate with the teachers to find out about the child’s progress?
BN: In pre-school you usually accompany your child to the classroom door so you see the teacher every day and can make a quick comment – although it’s not always so easy if you are not confident in Spanish or Catalan and there are lots of other pushy mums around. You can ask for an interview with your child´s teacher if you want a more in-depth chat. Some schools have a school diary where you can jot down odd remarks and the teacher can let you know if there are any problems.
CF: At what age do children take examinations?
BN: At around 8 or 9 the school usually starts setting “controls” which are internal tests in various subjects . The Generalitat(Catalan Government) does testing at 2º Primary and 2º Secondary to check general school standards.
CF: How much Spanish are children generally taught? In your opinion do children who attend local schools generally learn to communicate in Spanish as well as Catalan?
BN: Children don´t receive any Spanish until they are 6 and then they have 2 hours a week. Many people complain that the standard of Castellano– especially written is very poor – but in my opinion the language of the playground has always been Castellano – even more so now there are so many immigrants to Catalunya- especially people from South America. My son switches from Catalan to Spanish according to which friend he is with.
CF: Would you recommend parents giving their children extra Spanish/Catalan lessons?
BN: I think that families who don´t speak Spanish or Catalan at home have to make a big effort to reinforce and develop the language – they have a lot of catching up to do ! It may be enough to watch local TV, go to the cinema or theatre or sign up for local clubs, but some children definitely benefit from extra help from a private teacher – especially once they start getting homework. I have a University student who helps my son with his Catalan and maths because I only confuse him if I try and explain it.
CF: For parents of young children i.e. 3 year olds, a big fear is that the child will not learn to read or write in their native language. What can parents do about this?
BN: I think this is a real problem. You can be so busy trying to integrate your child into the Catalan that you can forget about your own language! Regular visits back to your home country can refresh their vocabulary but you need to try and read with them as well – easier said than done when the school day is so long here! There are lots of good websites to spark their interest in written English and maybe you could get relatives to send over comics and magazines about their interests.
CF: What are the current options available for both International in and around Sitges?
BN: In the Sitges area there are several International schools as well as many more in Barcelona, several of which provide transport from the Sitges area. The most established International school in the Garraf region is the British School of Barcelona in Casteldefells. It follows the British curriculum and offers students the chance to take GCSE o levels and A levels. International School of Barcelona in Vallpineda (formerly known as ESCAAN ) offers GSCEs and also the chance to do the IB(International Baccalaureate)
A new, smaller project which started a couple of years ago is The Olive Tree School which aims to provide a more creative interpretation of the British National curriculum for children from 3 / 14 years old.
Situated between Sitges and Vilanova is the well established French school Bel Aire.
During the Summer of 2013 a brand new school opened in an empty complex near Vilanova called the Richmond School offering education in English from 3 / 18 years old and boasting excellent facilities for children and parents.
CF: How have Catalan and Spanish educational projects developed over recent years?
BN: Until recently all Catalan and Spanish educational projects tended to be rather traditional and inflexible. During the last couple of years there has been a move for some parents to either home school their children, or to set up more creative, child centred projects using the philosophies of educational pioneers like Rebeca Wilde and Howard Gardner. These tend to be co-operatives relying heavily on parent participation and putting a lot of importance on the use of outdoor areas and gardens in the children’s learning.
New projects which have recently opened in the Sitges area are :
- La Sierra, San Pere de Ribes ( child centred education in Catalan from 3/18 years old)
- El Petit Eden, San Pere de Ribes : multi lingual parenting group for children up to 4 years old
- Owls Education, Sitges : support programme for families who are home schooling
- Camp Joliu, Arboc : a Catalan private school set up by Opus Dei incorporating the multiple Intelligence theory.
For pre school children there are a huge number of projects in the Sitges area ranging from state guarderias (La Moixiganga or El Circolet) to private daycare like Planet English Morning Club and Green Apple.