Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

Education Decisions: Why We Initially Opted for International Schooling

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Our decision prior to arrival – in fact, the decision that probably most dictated the very part of Spain we initially moved to – was to place both girls in International English school.

We researched as much as we could, and spoke to as many different people as we could, and certainly both of them were generally considered young enough to absorb the language challenges and settle well in a Spanish school.  But generalities don’t always apply easily to specific children, and we knew our eldest especially was a sensitive and perceptive child who would be quite unsettled enough by the move itself, without the additional steps of adaptation a change of school system would entail.

We were already ripping her away from all of her friends and family, the home she knew, and everything that was familiar, and we wished we could have done this all when she was younger and it would have been easier.  However much we talked and talked about how great it was going to be, and however imaginative and smart we thought she was for her age, the truth is that it’s much, much harder for children to deal with hypothetical situations and project into the unknown.  For her, everything we were making her give up, rather than all she stood to gain, was far more tangible and easier to grasp.  The planned changes were daunting and immense.  Having memories of my own of moving to a new school in a new town at a similar age, I knew that that alone was a big enough deal to cope with – before the compounding factors of life in a new country were involved.  The whole thing was scary and full of unknowns for our daughter, then eight years old, and we would have done anything we could to make it easier.

Knowing that she could slot right in to a familiar UK curriculum was one big factor, because she was a bright child for whom learning had normally come easily.  We knew that one day like all the rest of us she’d find that moment in every subject, where you think, ‘hang on, I don’t get this!”  But we didn’t want that to happen on her first day of her new school.  We liked the idea of carrying on where we left off.

The other big help in the transition was the openness of the school to embracing new students, and indeed their whole family.   She was able to attend a ‘taster day’ on a family visit months before we moved, and meet the peer group she would ultimately be with – of course a great marketing move from the school, but massively reassuring to all the children and parents involved.  I think that day also helped to make the whole thing real for our eldest, up till then it was just some crazy idea that we were all going to live on holiday next year or something.  Again, intangibles: easy for Mum and Dad to tell her it wouldn’t be like that, but she had to really see and feel it for herself.

It was important for her to meet kids who actually lived in Spain, British kids like her, and talk to them about their everyday lives.  Not just about school but about hobbies and friends and what they did at weekends, how they felt about their school and their teachers, what they missed about or felt about the UK.  And also what the kids are in to, what toys and collectibles were cool as opposed to naff, and so on.  This stuff matters a great deal when you are eight or nine and grown-ups getting all hung up on their own projects like attempting to emigrate simply haven’t the time or attention to get into all this properly.

Whilst she was hanging out with the kids and seeing what the lunch room and playground were like, Mum and Dad were talking to the senior staff, touring the facilities in the junior and senior schools, and discussing results from SATs through to A-levels.  We were learning about the schools’ histories, philosophies and cultures, meeting the people who would be teaching our girls, and finding out all about how they would help them to settle and adapt to their new life and culture, as well as new country.

So, all of us got what we needed to know from the English schools, and felt that everything was geared up to help our transition.  We even had two to choose from in the town we wanted to live in – a factor that we found very helpful, because the choice wasn’t obvious in terms of an immediate front runner, and it made us examine our motivations and priorities very closely.

Even finding out about Spanish school options, by contrast, seemed bafflingly difficult…  In the UK we had had access to Ofsted reports, league tables, and the tried and tested grapevines of the school gate.  But trying to find out about schools in Spain seemed impossible.

No point in league tables, I was told, as you’ll get sent to whichever school you’re in catchment for regardless, no one bothers comparing them in that way.  Unthinkable, to us coming from New Labour Britain where choice, or the illusion of it, was regarded as everything.  And of course the grapevine mostly spoke a different language to us in any case – even driving around looking at schools on our visits it all felt weird and inaccessible, and because of our Britishness I am sure we felt uncomfortable at the very idea of hanging round a school.

Online we tried our best, but this was 2007-2008 – it’s easy to forget how quickly things have changed, and hopefully it’s easier now.  Back then it was more yahoo groups and forums rather than what we now know as social networking, and we were glad enough of that, but the uptake and penetration amongst the already small communities we were trying to find out about was frustratingly limited.  We couldn’t even find out which of the schools in the town we were hoping to live in actually used Castellano Spanish as the first language, rather than the regional Valenciano, (the answer, we eventually found out, was ‘very few’).

Added to this we had to deal with the very real fact that our initial move was experimental.  We had a 6 month lease both ends and the determination to try to make it work, we were fully committed to the trial.  But we knew that there were so many factors that had to work for all four of us on every level, and we determined to burn no bridges.  If we’d had to go back to the UK and pop them back in to their old school, they would have covered exactly the same national curriculum during the intervening time as their friends.  It was easy to see the attraction of the international schools network globally for people whose work takes them to different locations frequently, because that continuity is so important, when other things are subject to change.

Choosing the international school also meant that we made friends quickly, and got to know lots of people in the expat community.  Partly because attending weekend playdates often involved a half hour drive to a new area, often accompanied by a pleasant barbeque garden afternoon getting to know lots of new people whilst the children played.  But also because for such schools, that was an important part of their culture – children and their parents coming and going frequently, even before the recession.  Around the world international schools have always served a transient global community of many nationalities, for example one family of Dutch friends had chosen the school not only to ensure their children’s flawless and unaccented English but because of the continuity – their work meant frequent relocation, and they’d attended English international schools in other cities previously and enjoyed a consistent and high quality education.  And their children were confident well-educated world citizens with a healthy international outlook and tolerance of difference.

So, for us, international schooling was the initial decision we made. And although we later changed our mind we have no regrets about that first move.  For all the good we genuinely believe it did them, the move from one country to another was very very challenging for our girls, and finding the language and curriculum familiar was a huge help – this was the single biggest factor in the choice.


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