Our kids have been in school in Spain for nearly a month now, and it is going well overall. We are still learning about the Spanish educational system, but wanted to share our initial impressions.
Types of Schools
There are three types of schools in Spain. Public, concertado, and private.
Public schools are the schools most children attend, including ours.
Concertados are a type of school that doesn’t exist in the United States. They are sort of like Catholic charter schools. They get public funding for the kids who are enrolled there, but they are religious institutions that also seem to receive some financial support from the church. In some cases, parents have to pay an extra fee for their kids to attend concertados, but it seems like they are free in our city. All kids take religion classes as part of their school day.
Private schools in Spain are similar to in the United States in that families pay for their children to attend, and like in the United States they are very variable. Some are international schools that follow the British or United States curriculum, and some follow more closely to the Spanish curriculum. Our small city does not have any international schools since the expat population is very small, but I believe there is one private school just outside the city. We did not consider it since we knew we wanted our kids to attend public school.
Ages and Grades
There seem to be some programs for kids under age 3, but most kids start their formal schooling in a colegio which are for ages 3-11. The first three years are called Infantil and are not compulsory, but it seems pretty much everyone enrolls their kids since it is free. After that, students go through grades 1 through 6 in the same school and this stage is called Primaria. These 6 years are broken up into three cycles, so grades 1 and 2 are called Cycle 1, etc. I am not sure how typical this is throughout Spain, but in our school the kids keep the same teacher for the cycle, so the teacher starts with a group of first graders and follows them through to the end of second grade. It seems that kids also have the same Infantil teacher for all three years. In the United States, we call this looping.
Your grade in school is determined based on your birth year, which is different from where we lived in the United States where it was based on your age as of September 1st. Since our kids all have fall birthdays, this means the three oldest kids were supposed to basically skip a grade upon arrival in Spain. More on that later.
School Schedule and Calendar
The school calendar roughly follows the same September – June calendar used in the United States. Most schools seem to start around September 9th, though ours didn’t start until September 13th due to local holidays. There is also a long vacation at Christmas which lasts more than two weeks, and a week off for Easter. There are various days off for national and local holidays as well, which are sometimes stretched into long weekends.
For the month of September, schools in our city ran from 9:00-1:00. In October, they added an extra hour so the school day ran from 9:00-2:00, which is much shorter than we are used to in the United States. Our kids haven’t complained, though! In June, the schedule again gets shorted to 9:00-1:00. This is due to the heat in the afternoons during these months.
In many other areas of Spain, kids get out around 1pm year round but then return to school for a couple hours in the afternoon from October through May. When we were choosing a city to move to, we knew we may end up living far from the school since we had missed the normal registration period, so were concerned about having a schedule where kids had to make two trips to school each day. One of the reasons we chose the city we did was because of the school schedule, since it also leaves a lot of time in the afternoons for after school activities, which I will write about in a later post.
Those who are considering a move to Spain to immerse kids in Spanish should be very aware of the language of instruction in various areas of Spain. One reason we chose the area we are in is because all instruction is in Spanish, but in some other areas of Spain different languages are spoken and you may find half or more of the school instruction to be in an entirely different language, such as Catalan, Valenciano, Mallorquin, Basque, or Galician.
In our school, English instruction starts at Infantil and occurs about twice a week through 6th grade. Our school is not considered a bilingual school, but there are others that have that designation and I believe this means they teach some additional subjects in English. Many of the concertados are bilingual schools, and I have heard they do a decent job in language instruction.
The English instruction in our school is very basic and many of our kids’ friends seem to attend additional after school English courses in the afternoons. There is a huge focus here on learning English, since it is considered the common language of Europe. The English taught here is British English, and our 7-year-old actually learned new words in English class when they were learning about clothes, such as trousers and trainers.
From reading other expat blogs, I knew that we would need to purchase our kids’ school books. After we got our school assignment, I went to our local bookstore and told them what school my kids would attend and their grades. They had a list of all the books required for each grade level for every school in the city, and placed an order for us after we paid a 30 euro deposit per kid. I knew the books were going to be expensive, but it was still a little shocking to return in September to pay the remaining cost of the books, and find that all the books for the four kids came to a total of 620 Euros ($700)! When I returned home from the bookstore and my husband asked the cost, I told him that at least it was less than a month of preschool back in the United States. Had we been living back in the U.S., we would have had to pay twice that for my daughter’s preschool each month, whereas here in Spain it was completely free. It seems there are book sales organized at the end of each school year, and siblings can hand books down to each other until the publishers come out with a new version, so for those living permanently in Spain the cost would not be quite as extreme every year.
We had gotten a school supply list from one of the teachers with the usual supplies: markers, crayons, scissors, glue, paper towels, etc. so I had all those items purchased prior to the start of school. Once school started up, all four kids kept bringing home additional lists of supplies needed, including some additional books for art and music class. Thankfully we have two school supply stores within half a block since we were there practically every afternoon. After my experience shopping for school supplies in a foreign country, I will never print a supply list again without pictures of the items for those who may not be familiar with the English terminology. I spent so much time wandering the aisles trying to make sense of the list, and had to ask store employees and other shoppers multiple times to direct me to the correct item. I speak decent Spanish, but when something on the list just says colores, which translates to “colors,” it is pretty hard to know that that word is used here for colored pencils.
By the time we purchased all the additional books and supplies, the total for the four kids was probably close to $1000. For us, this was a lot of money, but every time I took out my credit card to pay I thought of the people for whom this is an impossible expense. Spain is in economic crisis and unemployment is extremely high. Salaries are low here, and $1000 is likely to be 2-3 months rent even for families with professional parents. The kids who can’t afford these supplies are already behind before they have even started school, and will constantly be reminded of their economic status. It made me extremely grateful that the schools in the diverse city we live in back in the United States provides all supplies to students so that everyone can start the school year prepared.
In addition to her school supplies, my youngest also needed something called a baby, which is pronounced like bobby. The closest translation for this would be smock, but it is a concept that does not exist at all in the United States. It is a large button down shirt that goes down to her knees that she has to wear over her clothes at school every single day. Each school has their own style so all the kids in Infantil at her school have matching green and white striped ones. We tried to get her used to this prior to school, but she is very particular about what she wears and would freak out whenever we tried to put it on her. But peer pressure won out and now that she sees that everyone else wears them, she goes to school with it on without an issue. Many parents have their kids’ names embroidered on them, which I am planning to do at some point, though it’s hard to get it done since she wears it every day.
Almuerzo and Comedor
As I mentioned in a previous post, the main meal in Spain is eaten in the mid-afternoon, around 2pm. Schools get out at 2:00 to accommodate this schedule, and we have been having our main meal for the day as soon as the kids get home from school, which also works out well with my husband’s schedule since his remote work day starts at 3pm. We are supposed to pack almuerzo each day for our kids, which directly translates to lunch, but is really more of a snack. Our 4-year-old eats her almuerzo in her classroom, but for the other kids it is combined with recess and eaten on the patio in front of the school. It seems a standard almuerzo is a small ham sandwich, but we have usually just been packing a piece of fruit for the older boys and a jelly sandwich for the youngest. Sometimes the boys eat their almuerzo, and sometimes it distracts them from playing so they don’t eat until they come home. My kids describe that at recess the boys are all playing soccer with ham sandwiches in their hands. Multi-tasking, I suppose.
Most schools have a cafeteria attached for students staying for comedor. For working parents or parents who prefer it, kids eat their main meal of the day in comedor and also have some playtime. In other parts of Spain where kids return to school in the afternoon, this covers the midday break. Our school is one of the few in our city that does not have a comedor, so I don’t know much about it, but I have looked at the menus and they serve a wide variety of foods. From a young age kids here seem to be expected to eat the same food as adults. There are multiple menus available for kids with allergies or dietary restrictions, but no vegetarian options, and I have heard that kids are required to eat what is served. Our kids technically have the option to go to comedor in a nearby school, but since three of the four kids are vegetarian it would not be a good option for us.
Specials and Religion
In addition to English twice a week, our three older boys in Primaria also have regular Art, Music, and P.E. classes. The schedule and activities are quite similar to what we are used to the United States. These activities happen in the regular classroom, though I’m not sure if that is normal or just because our kids attend school in a very small building.
One huge difference is that religion is taught in schools here. I already mentioned the concertados, which have mandatory religious instruction, but all other public schools have optional Catholic instruction twice a week. When I first visited the school to fill out paperwork I could choose between Religion or the alternative, which is called Valores Sociales (Social Values). We are not Catholic so opted for Valores Sociales. The religion class takes place in the regular classroom with a visiting teacher and kids who aren’t participating go elsewhere with their classroom teacher during this time. Based on their reports, it seems like they talk about feelings and watch movies and draw things and play computer games. Once my oldest wanted to go back into his classroom to get a pencil but he wasn’t allowed back in since they were doing religious instruction, so they seem to be pretty strict about not exposing kids to it without the parents’ permission. The kids have not reported any talk of religion during other parts of the school day.
I wasn’t sure how many kids would be opting out of religion, since the sense I’ve gotten is that Spain is a Catholic country but that religion doesn’t play much of a role in people’s lives. I have heard that even for those who aren’t religious, the rites of passage, such as First Communion, are considered an important part of their culture. Our two kids that are before the age of first communion report that just a few kids in their class aren’t participating in religion, but the two older boys report that it is about half the class. It could be a coincidence or it could be that parents opt their kids out of religion after First Communion.
In most of the United States, the school your kids attend is determined by where you live. We live in a city that has School Choice which means that during the registration process you choose from any school in the city and rank your top three, but may not get in to the school of your choice in the lottery and there is a system of getting additional points for proximity school and if you have a sibling already registered. I thought it was a complicated system until I saw how things work in Spain. In many cities here, there is also school choice, but there are about 10 different categories that can get you additional points, such as having disabled family members or working near one of the schools.
This whole process happens in the spring, and I called a few times to confirm that we couldn’t do anything the spring before we arrived. Instead, we had to wait until we had an address in the summer and then we went to the school department. The man we spoke with looked at where there were openings and suggested two schools that had room for all four of our kids, and we picked the one that was close to our house.
The school are kids are attending is probably one of the smallest in the city. It is just one classroom per grade level (9 classes total) with up to 25 kids in each grade. The principal is also the gym teacher, and my son’s 5th grade teacher is also the assistant principal. From the beginning, we have had a wonderful experience with the school. Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming of our family, and has been very patient as we try to navigate a new school system in a new country.
Their school is located in the large park in the center of the city, which means they have more room for recess than most schools. It is just a 5 minute walk from our house through the park, and is quite a nice way to start the morning. Nobody is missing rushing out of the house early to catch the bus in the morning, and we are all home from the school pickup by 2:10 each day.
This is very different than in the United States. Each teacher has one hour per week outside of the school day dedicated for communication with parents. At the start of the year, each classroom had a parent meeting during this time which was similar to the Back to School Nights we are familiar with back home. If at any point you want to discuss your child’s progress or ask a question, you can set up an appointment with the teacher during this time, which I think takes the place of parent-teacher conferences. I also discovered it acceptable to just drop in for a quick question, since sometimes when I was in for a meeting for another child I’d pop by another teacher’s classroom just to see if everything was going OK. Other than this scheduled time, you do not see your child’s teacher at all. Parents do not enter the building in the morning and the little kids in Infantil are just handed to their parents at the door to the school at the end of every day.
Teachers do not have school issued email accounts and cannot be reached by email. To get in touch with them, you send in a note or write it in your child’s book which they then show the teacher. There is a single email address for the school which is used to send updates to parents about days off and the schedule for parent-teacher meetings.
This is also very different that the United States. We are used to schoolwide email lists and class email lists, but here everything is through WhatsApp, which is a texting app that everyone in Spain uses to communicate. It even has its own verb now, wasapear, which basically means “to send a text via WhatsApp.” Each class had its own WhatsApp group that one parent runs and it is how parents communicate with each other to find out what the homework is, plan birthday parties, talk about activities their kids are doing to see if others are interested, etc. I am on 4 separate WhatsApp lists since each kid’s class has one and the volume of messages is quite overwhelming. If I’m away from my phone for half an hour sometimes I’ll come back to over 30 messages. It is a very helpful resource when my kid comes home and says “I need some kind of instrument for music class tomorrow but I didn’t understand the word” since I can quickly find out that he needs a recorder of a specific brand and where I need to go to buy it.
In general, the academics have been more similar than different. The kids have the same subjects they do at home: Language, Math, Social Studies, Science. Like in the US, more focus is placed on Language and Math. Language in the upper grades seems to put less emphasis on reading and writing skills and takes a more academic approach to language, like learning the different names for words based on where the accent is, and learning sophisticated vocabulary to talk about communication (code, receptor, channel, etc.).
I had heard that learning in Spain was more rote, but they have also had some hands on projects to complete at home. One kid had to make a model of a cell, and another had to create an interactive physical map of Spain.
There are still many differences, however. Kids learn cursive here first, which means that my 2nd grader is expected to do all his writing in cursive. Thankfully I had been tipped off to this prior to our arrival, and worked on him over the summer so he adjusted to this with no issues. There is also an enormous focus on study habits and neatness. The older kids are expected to each have a notebook for each subject where they copy down questions from the book and write their answers. They are expected to have clear headings, dates, neat margins, etc. This has been a big adjustment for my older kids who are more used to worksheets or workbooks where you just fill in the blank space, or notebooks where they didn’t have to worry about being neat. From the work my 2nd grader is doing, I can see how they start preparing kids with these expectations from a very early age, since he has to copy writing from the board neatly into his notebook.
Those who know me well may wonder what I think of the math instruction here, since my career is based on improving math instruction in elementary schools. As I expected, math instruction is very rote with little focus on why the different algorithms work. Division is done differently here and my 5th grader and I both had to learn the new method so I could help him with his homework, since his teacher will not accept work done with the algorithm he already knows. I wonder if he will continue to divide the Spanish way when we return the US, and also whether my 2nd grader will always write in cursive from now on. I guess we will see what the long term affects of this time in Spain are, other than proficiency in the language.
Homework seems fairly similar to the United States in that it is very variable. My 2nd grader has a math sheet to do some nights and is expected to read at home. My 6th grader has some work out of his books, but he usually has time to do it during the school day. My 5th grader has been coming home with about an hour of homework each night, however.
There are also more tests here and a greater expectation that kids are spending time at home studying. Even in 2nd grade, the language book was sent home the night before a test so we could review capital letters and periods together. We have been leaving it up to the kids whether they want to study for tests at home, since we are trying to keep academics very low key initially while they are adjusting.
The Kids Adjustment
With four kids with completely different personalities, as you can imagine the adjustment was quite different for each child. The two younger kids have adjusted as we expected they would based on their personalities, and the older two were surprising. Here’s the summary:
Our 4-year-old is the type of kid who always does great in structured group settings. She is equally happy sitting in her seat doing art projects, participating in free play, and running around outside with a ball. She has switched schools every year since she was born and usually does fine after a bit of separation anxiety in the first couple weeks. She attended a Spanish immersion school last year so had some foundation in Spanish before our move.
Her transition has been extremely smooth. She cried at dropoff the first couple days, but now she marches into the school with her class and comes home talking about her friends and everything they did that day. Her teacher says she understands absolutely everything in class but is not speaking much Spanish yet, although this does not seem to be affecting her ability to make friends with other kids. She is capable of speaking Spanish and I have heard her use it when I ask her brothers to speak Spanish at home, so I’m sure within a few more weeks she’ll be talking more in class.
Our youngest son turned 7 a few weeks after school started. Back in the United States he was in Kindergarten last year, but because of the different cutoffs here he moved up to 2nd grade. I asked his Kindergarten teacher about this last year and she said he would do just fine since he was a strong student with good reading, writing, and math skills. He had spent two years in Spanish immersion PreK and Kindergarten so had a good foundation in the language. Even though we knew his skills were pretty strong, he is a kid who has trouble with change and takes a long time to adjust to new things. He is constantly comparing himself to others and often feels like he can’t do things as well as other people around him (which is probably related to having two older brothers). He is also shy and it can take him a while to feel comfortable with other kids and make new friends.
He was sobbing as he walked into school on the first day, and the change to 2nd grade was a big adjustment for him. No longer was school about playing with friends around tables, but now he was sitting at a desk doing what the teacher said all day long. For the first couple weeks, he complained of a stomachache every morning and told me that his stomach was hurting all day long at school, so he was clearly feeling pretty anxious. I checked in with his teacher who said that he seemed to understand everything that was going on in class, but said that he seemed to always be sad. He made one friend quickly who he invited over to our house, but was reluctant to interact with other kids. Although he played soccer with the other boys at recess, every day we heard about how terribly he did compared to everyone else.
After a few weeks of school, we started to see a transformation. He started to notice that his academic skills were actually quite good, and felt more confident about his performance in school. He got a 10 out of 10 on a math test, and 9.25 on a language test. His teacher has a system of tracking how many books kids have read on the wall, and one day he came home with a 64 page long book and told me that he wanted to read it all that night and write a summary in his reading log, and got right to work. The next day he got to record the book he had read on the classroom wall, and was very proud of himself. When I asked him at pick up how school had gone, for the first time he said, “Good.” I am pretty sure we are past the worst of the transition and he will continue to settle in over the next couple months. It’s hard for me to judge the speed of the kids’ language acquisition, but from reading with him it seems to me that he has been really soaking up Spanish and there seems to be less of a gap between his ability level and grade level expectations than with the older boys.
Our 9-year-old is the most social of our boys. He makes friends easily and always has a packed social calendar. He is also a very good student and always received excellent grades in school. We thought of all the boys, he would probably have the easiest transition to a new environment. Because of the age cutoff, he jumped from 3rd grade to 5th grade, but we were pretty sure he could handle it.
In fact, he has had the toughest transition, though it seems to be getting better after several weeks in school. Even though he had five years of Spanish immersion in school, his lack of confidence with Spanish seemed to make him very shy. Kids have been friendly towards him, but he usually sticks by my side at school dropoff rather than joining the group of kids playing together from his class. He has made one good friend who he has gotten together with outside of school, but doesn’t have a group of friends like he is used to.
He also had some trouble adjusting to the academics, and without a group of friends he was looking forward to seeing, going to school was a daily struggle at first. He understands enough Spanish to know what is going on in class, but makes more errors than the other kids with anything related to language. Math was the only area where he was feeling successful, until they got to the division unit and he was told he was doing it all wrong. We definitely expected that the kids wouldn’t be successful academically right away, but it is hard for him to feel he is no longer an excellent student. His teacher’s style is also different than he is used to, and when the teacher points out areas for improvement, he takes it all extremely personally. The biggest struggle has been the amount of homework, since the school day is already tough and then he comes home to more work. It certainly doesn’t help that his older brother has practically no homework and is playing on the computer while he is still working in the afternoons.
During the third week of school, we started to see a gradual improvement. He no longer asked every day how many more months until we could go back to the U.S. He instead talked about his new friend and how he would miss him when we leave, and was enjoying playing soccer with the other kids at recess. He is gradually becoming more independent with homework, and seems to understand that we are not really concerned with his grades at the start of the year while he is adjusting. Like with our 7-year-old, I am pretty sure we are past the worst part of the transition and it will continue to improve from here.
I was most worried about how our oldest would handle a new school. Change is extremely difficult for him. He was completely against our move to Spain and told us that we were ruining his life. In our last months in the US, he attitude softened a bit and he seemed a little more open to the idea, but made it quite clear that he would rather stay home and that he was only coming with us because he had no choice in the matter.
Based on his year of birth, he should have been in 7th grade this year, which is when kids move to the Institutos. When we registered for school, we asked to keep him in 6th grade, which would have been his grade this year had we stayed in the U.S., since we thought the transition to a large secondary school would have been too much for him. It took some convincing, but in the end we were able to register for him for 6th grade which meant he could attend the same school as his younger siblings.
To our surprise, he settled into school immediately and is happier than he was back at home. He even told us that this is the first time in his life he really loves school. He really likes his teacher who motivates the kids to learn without putting a ton pressure on them, and he had a great group of new friends right away on the first day of school. He is feeling confident with the Spanish and successful in all areas of school, although supposedly his notebook organizational habits are not quite what is expected of kids who are heading off to secondary school the following year. Still, we are thrilled he is so happy in school and is having a great experience in Spain.
Even though a couple of the kids had bumpy starts in school, at no point did we question our decision to move abroad and have them attend school in a new country. They are all getting so much out of the experience and I’m sure their level of Spanish will be very high by the time we leave, since they spend many hours each day fully immersed in the language. They are also learning a lot about adaptability and what it is like to be the new kid and attend school in a different culture, which I’m sure will increase their empathy for others. They are also very engaged in extracurricular activities, which I will write about in another post.
The pictures below are both from the first day of school, and two kids were crying on the way there but everyone was happy at the end of the day. We are pretty sure these pictures are representative of how our time here will go for them, since things that were hard at first are gradually getting easier. We think they are all off to a great start and look forward to seeing what the rest of the school year will bring as they continue to adjust and grow.
Before picture on 1st day of school
After picture on first day of school