First impressions of Spanish school

My daughter has now been at school for a fortnight. I wish I had more feedback on it, but trying to get information out of her is no easy task. So far she has done a fair amount of dancing to music and colouring in, has played a great deal, and has watched Peppa Pig twice. They eat their 11 o’clock snack sitting in the classroom before the break rather than during. The school day runs from 9am to 2pm with a half hour break. There isn’t any half-day option. When I was five, back in the UK, we had a break in the morning and the afternoon, as well as a lunch break. In comparison, the Spanish hours make for quite a long day at four years old (and a few kids in her class will still be three). I guess it explains the Peppa Pig, though I’d prefer some kind of free choice activity/play instead of television. We parents are supposed to send a pack of wipes, a spare outfit and 50 euros’ worth of books along with her for the year. The school provides the other supplies, and parents pay a 30 euro fee. The books are colourful workbooks, full of illustrations and stickers! Not like in my day…


curriculum for a four year old?

curriculum for a four year old?

As for my first week at school, ie my Spanish classes, I’m relieved to be finally doing something about my Spanish deficit. Having taught a fair amount of English, I know that being able to read and write a language doesn’t mean you can speak it. Although Spanish looks understandable to me on paper, I still struggle forming very basic accurate sentences in real life. So when I went to the A2 level Spanish class (beginner II) and found it fairly straightforward, I was not sure whether to ask to move up or not. The teacher told me to go ahead and try the class above, and I’m glad I did. The course will definitely be harder, but I’m willing to be stretched.


One major advantage is that the harder class is half the size, so that means twice as much practice in class. It seems at least half of the students doing the lower level don’t bother continuing to the intermediary stage. There is also less disparity in levels in my new class. In the A2 level, there were 20 students, of very varying abilities, even though many had been there the year before for A1. Interestingly, just over half were British, whereas in the B1 class I am the only Brit. There are a couple of North Africans, a couple of Iranians, a Frenchman, and a couple of Scandinavians. Of course, different ones have different strengths, especially those who are working and are therefore quite integrated and know a lot of vocab and expressions related to their jobs. The primary school vocab I’m learning isn’t that useful in other contexts. My only strength is my impatience – I should use that on some job interview question about my failings. Actually, the Instituto Cervantes, which devised the standardised DELE levels describes A1 as Breakthrough (acceso), A2 as Waystage (plataforma) and B1 as Threshold (umbral). I definitely don’t want to be on the plataforma any more, and I can’t wait to get past the umbral.

Check out their site if you want to try past exam papers and the like.


A few words from my week:

AMPA – parents’ and teachers’ association, pronounced “ampa”.

asistir – to attend

ausentarse, yo me ausenté – to be absent, I was away

la rutina diaria – the daily routine

ama de casa – housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum; careful - the Spanish say el ama, just like el agua and el aula (classroom) even though these nouns are feminine. That’s because they start with a stressed ‘a’. If it helps you to swallow this phrase, the ama is not from amar (to love) meaning someone who loves housework so much that it’s all they want to do in life, but actually from amo, owner.

soy perfeccionisto/a – I’m a perfectionist (somebody else said this, not me, believe it or not.)


Bursting the bubble

This my second vuelta al cole in Spain, the second time I have been here at the start of a new school year, when summer winds down, temperatures become pleasant, and town gets quiet.

The first was a non-event as nobody in our family went to school, to the surprise of our neighbours. This time round has been quite different with my four-year old now officially escolarizada, which actually meant braving the seasonal flurry of stationery to buy books (for preschool!). She wasn’t the only one. I am now enrolled in the Casa de la cultura for Spanish lessons twice a week, as I attempt to keep up with my daughter as long as I possibly can!

This is the third time I have moved to a new country and thrown myself into learning the local language. But this time is more complicated than the previous two.


unas mochilas

unas mochilas

The first time was the simplest: I moved to Paris and immediately started a French degree. I knew a lot of other English students but I did plenty of activities in French, listened only to French radio, wrote all my notes in French, and read constantly in French. I had no internet at home for the first two years, so no BBC Radio, no English TV, no Skyping family all the time. Instead of looking things up on the Web I had to find everything out from the locals. It was true immersion.

The second time was in Lebanon. I started lessons after a few months. Lebanese is a harder language to break into, as there’s no real written form of it. But by the end of three years I could understand most of what went on, even in fast-moving social situations. However, meetings and the radio were still very hard. I also had my work (in French and English) and soon a baby to take up my time, as well as other priorities.

This time round is the longest I have left it before starting any classes. I’ve spent the last year and a half in a bubble. I speak Spanish every day, but only the smallest of small talk, buying the veg, other mums at the park, neighbours in the stairwell. I have a few Spanish friends who speak reasonably good English. Life is too busy for me to go out looking for new friends just because they are Spanish. However, this time round there are also some advantages. The local language seems so much more accessible. Unlike Arabic, you say everything like you write it (albeit at top speed). Plus it is so similar to French. I’m not just talking about words like timide (FR) and tímido (ES – shy). Even phrases like no vale la pena (it’s not worth it), and hacerse pasar por  (pretend to be) are so similar in form to the French equivalents ça ne vaut pas la peine, and se faire passer pour.


There wasn’t a placement test for the classes at the Casa de la cultura. The secretary just enrolled me in the A2 level. From what I can tell, A1 is for absolute beginners, A2 for basic tourism, B1 for actually communicating, B2 for competency, C1 for fluency and C2 for mastery.

When I got home and researched the levels, I decided A2 could be a bit slow. I know there will be stuff in it that I don’t know – in fact there’s probably a fair bit in A1 I don’t know yet. But with a kid in school, I am now officially out of my bubble. Not only do I have to talk to her teacher and to the other parents, I have more time to talk to everybody I meet all week, and more time to learn on my own. Also I know the past tenses, the future, the conditional and the subjunctive, when I see them. And I’m willing to work at it because I’m impatient to be able to communicate.

So I tried the online tests, which I passed, up to and including B2. I’ve always been better on paper than in real life. Sad, but true. In fact, when I sat a similar placement test for Classical Arabic lessons years ago, I asked the teacher to enter me into a lower level than the one I qualified for, and the class I ended up in was plenty hard enough. There I was at a disadvantage there compared to many of the other students. Most were of Arab origin, so that gave them some background knowledge, concrete examples they knew were right, and a bunch of random vocabulary they could call in to play. This time I don’t feel any such disadvantage, as most foreigners here are English or Scandinavian or Dutch and can’t call on any knowledge of Latin languages. So I have been swotting up on my conjugations in the hope the Casa de la cultura will bump me up a level when I start.


From now on I’ll be sharing what I learn here. I figure it makes an extra outlet to ease the avalanche my husband faces every time I come in the door, spouting all the expressions and grammar explanations I’ve learnt! For now, here is a bit of vocab from the scolastic baptism of fire.



la mochila – back pack, specifically at my school they want them to be sin ruedas, without wheels, so none of this small suitcase business


la vuelta al cole – the back-to-school period or start of the school year


el cole = short for colegio – primary school …NOT British college (16-18y), not French collège (11-15), and not US college (18+). After el colegio comes instituto – secondary school


infantil – the preschool section for ages 3 to 5


la maestra – teacher, or of course el maestro if you have a male teacher


el desayuno – breakfast of course, however my school papers say the children must have desayuno before school but also bring desayuno with them in their mochila to eat before el recreo (break). So elevenses, or playtime snack, or tuck if you like. Le goûter for the French, but at the wrong time.

School Enrolment in Spain: Grand Finale

Finales ought to be exciting. Be warned: this one isn’t. True to many people’s expectations, we didn’t get a place for my 4 year old at the nearest school. Not at first, that is. Following the application in March 2015, I returned a fortnight later as instructed to find, not the results of the application process, but the first stage of the results. It was a list of applicants and which class they had applied to at the school, along with the number of points each child had been awarded.

Since we parents already know which class we applied to, this seemed a little superfluous, but actually wasn’t, since they had my daughter down with the 3-year olds, whereas in 2015 she turns four. (Spanish school works on a Jan-Dec birthday basis.) I remembered them actually writing “4 años” with an orange highlighter on the file they made for her, so I wasn’t worried, and sure enough they sorted it out within a week with no harm done.

school books for 4 year olds

school books for 4 year olds


Over a month later, at the next stage of this lengthy process, they posted a list of those kids who had been accepted by their first choice of school, and those who hadn’t and were still in limbo. My daughter was on the second. Since the class I had applied to was already full, all the kids having started the year before, the three applicants for it were all refused, regardless how many points they had. I was told I had to wait until other schools knew what places they had before opting for one of my less-preferred choices.

In a final twist to the school application saga, though, while we were in Lebanon, friends called and told us that our kid had after all been accepted. I suppose others had moved out, or our preferred school had stretched its numbers a little bit, as public schools sometimes have to when more people move into their catchment areas. That was early June. On the first working day we were back in Spain, a Friday, I went and got the matriculation papers, which were due by the final deadline of the following Monday, 8 June.

Now it’s late August and I have obtained the school books we were told to get – 50 euros worth for about six brightly coloured workbooks. All I need to know is when term starts. Cue another trip to the school, where I was told: “About 10 September.” Which is as much as I already knew.

For the rest of the saga: School Enrolment in Spain Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Is it a good school?

I received many dire warnings from people (whom I had never met before) who were concerned that my three-year old wasn’t in school yet. The main concern was that I was a social recluse, maybe even a Stig of the dump, and perhaps hadn’t realised that I lived in a town with schools. Secondary to that, they worried – more likely scenario – that I wouldn’t find a place. Since there are nine or ten state schools in my municipality, I didn’t think that was very likely. I mean, I can’t be the only crazy mum out there that is still at home looking after a baby and that doesn’t pack the older one off to school as soon as the government is willing to relieve me of her. After all, I’m already putting her in two years before real school starts.

But, they said, you won’t get a place in a GOOD school. What are the good schools? I asked. They listed four or five in my town, so I relaxed and ignored them again. The chap at the Education Department of the Town Hall also labelled two of the closest schools as “good”. So what is a good state school?

Some points we thought of were, not necessarily in this order:

  • distance from home (preferably a 10mn walk or less)
  • a short day (some schools run from 9am until 2pm; others have a 2-hour lunch break then the kids go back until 5pm)
  • languages taught (some have English ‘taught’ from age three up, some have a couple of subjects actually taught in English later on, and some have French taught from age ten)

Oh, and of course we would love to have great facilities and fabulous teachers, but from what I have found out, there isn’t all that much variation between the local state schools (which is as it should be in publicly funded schools, after all) and we may only find out the differences by actual experience.

When I visited the school that the chap at the ayuntamiento intimated was the best in the neighbourhood, I mentioned his accolade. Oh no, replied the lady who fielded my questions. “Todos los colegios son iguales,” she insisted.

If I had moved here with a seven or eight year old, then sending them to a centro bilingüe school with some classes in English would be a very high priority for me. I can imagine that total immersion for kids that age and who don’t speak Spanish in a curriculum designed for native speakers would be quite a baptism of fire. But at four, when school is more about playing, I’m hoping it won’t be too bumpy. In the two years of preschool before any classes in English are introduced, I think – I hope - that my daughter will learn to function well enough in Spanish.

Some days I’m confident – after all, she is already bilingual, and she’ll find Spanish very similar to French. Plus she has a head-start on reading, so she won’t struggle with the actual material, just with the communication side. Other days I just play the stressy mummy role.

Perhaps being in a centro bilingüe would make some classes easier. Perhaps I would understand more about those classes. Perhaps she would even learn some English vocab that I am not likely to use with her. But at the end of the day I think it is down to me to teach her proper English with a wide vocabulary and a deep love of learning so she can fill in any gaps I leave. It is also down to me to keep up with understanding her education and her homework, and I’m determined to make that happen. Besides, it could even be irritating to be in a class of complete beginners being taught English by a non-native speaker. The same goes for French.

As for the timing of the school day, all those in the area stick to the shorter day, so that turned out to be a non-choice. So when it actually came to filling in the form, listing our choice of five schools in order of preference, we simply named the closest school as top choice. Followed by the next closest schools. Phew. All that research to end up back where I started. What was I saying about stressy mummies?

On a positive note I discovered evidence that some schools in Andalucia use Cuisenaire rods (regletas) to teach maths to five-year olds in Infantil. As you know, I am very interested in these rods and the similar colour factor sets, so I’m delighted to know there are some like-minded educators in the area.

Against the flow

You would think that passing on your mother tongue to your children would be straightforward. Actually, if you speak a well-regarded, globally useful language, it isn’t particularly hard. Relatives on both sides of the family will support you and even be grateful you can pass on a language which will boost the kids’ career prospects. There is a plethora of materials available. People won’t look at you strangely in the street. People won’t erode your determination by suggesting that your speaking your native tongue is hindering their progression in the majority language.

You can look at it this way: if English is the minority language in your family, you needn’t worry because it’s the majority language of the world. The same is true of other “major” languages, to a lesser degree. I really feel for parents trying to transmit equally important heritage languages, but which are less well known or considered of little use in the business world.

Lots still to learn...

Lots still to learn…

Still, even with a “major” language, there is one element which can make it hard to pass on that language as fully or as consistently as you had planned. I tend to think of it in terms of a current. Immersion works because you end up being carried along by the current. As soon as your kid goes to school, they’ll not only learn to swim, they may even be carried away by the majority language to the detriment of their minority language(s). So they need you to provide a strong enough flow in your language for them to swim in that direction too when they choose. But as a parent living in a foreign culture, you, too, need to learn the local language. Just because you want to pass on a family language doesn’t mean that you don’t want to integrate your host country. Anyway you need to talk to teachers, doctors, and so on. So mentally you are pushing yourself into the local-language current, trying to learn to swim in that direction. This makes for a linguistic struggle in your head, because you too end up being carried along by the majority language, even though it may be your weakest language.

On the one hand I desperately want to ease the transition into school for my rather reserved daughter. I want her to know some basic vocabulary, to be able to express basic needs. I also want to keep up with her teachers, her playmates, her homework. On the other hand I want to keep providing a decent flow of English interaction when she is with me, and also support our other minority language, French. Not to mention continuing to support a modicum of Arabic exposure. I already try to speak French with their dad during mealtimes so the kids are more immersed in it. I can’t afford for the majority language, Spanish, to steal any of my linguistic effort, when the last thing my kids need to hear from me is Spanish because they will be thoroughly immersed at school.

So my plan is to start Spanish lessons in the autumn, when my oldest goes to school. But I know this will mean a battle of currents. I know I’ll have to fight against Spanish expressions slipping into my speech, fight against the tendency to choose vocab from the top of my head which would mean muddling it all up, fight against talking in sentences that would raise monolingual eyebrows.

Some people succeed with a more relaxed approach, but I need consistency, so does my routine-loving daughter, and so does my 19-month old who says his 40 odd words in three languages and I’m sure will end up being on the receiving end of an avalanche of Spanish once his big sister comes home from school and wants to play teacher on him, poor thing.