Moving abroad with children means making important decisions around schooling. Choosing a school in Spain means getting to grips with a whole new system, and lots of choices. Do you put them into a local school or a more international one? We moved to Valencia earlier this year and had to make decisions about schools in Spain for our native English speaking 4 and 6 year old sons, who had no Spanish whatsoever. Here is some information about schools in Spain and the different aspects to think about. *I am of course no expert, so this information is purely my personal experience and knowledge.
Choosing schools in Spain: preparation
Before the move we had done some research into choosing a school in Spain and particularly schools in Valencia. We visited a few too while my husband and I were over for a recce trip. Were we going to go for an English, bilingual or Spanish school? And what curriculum is best? It is hard to know where to start and like most expats, we looked at the best known private international or bilingual schools first. This was only because they are mentioned most in forums and on expat websites. There are so many
other choices which could be much better suited to your children and your lifestyle. It is worth ‘shopping around’. They may also save you quite a bit each month if you don’t have the funds or the desire to commit to private school fees.
Schools in Spain: Public, semi-private or private
I was blown away by the vast amount of schools Valencia. They range from public schools, semi-private schools (‘concertados’) to private schools. Many schools have nursery, primary and secondary school/baccalaureate all in one building. That way your child can stay in the same school their entire childhood. No wonder parents get quite anxious about finding the right school.
Public schools are state-run, Spanish, and many parents are happy with their children to go here. They are free, but you pay monthly for the ‘comedor’ or dinner hall at school. That is if you want your children to eat at school and not come home for lunch. The public schools, there are of course many, are the trickiest to select as an expat. You just don’t have any knowledge about which ones are good. Also, if you don’t know where you are going to be living yet, it is pointless trying to enroll them since you need a postcode within the catchment area. But if you are looking for a way to get your children to speak Spanish as quickly as possible, going to a local, Spanish school is a good option.
Semi-private / concertado
The semi-private, or ‘concertado’ status means that they are run and paid by the state but as a parent you contribute a monthly fee to receive the extras that a school offers. This could mean perhaps an extra teacher per class, more freedom in terms of their curriculum and how they design their classes and activities. A lot of the semi-private schools are religious (Catholic). And whereas some of them charge about the same as most private schools (which is around a minimum of 300-400 euro per month per child, often more), others charge very little and are in fact very affordable.
Private, English or Spanish schools in Valencia
There are also a great number of private schools in Valencia. Some are small, other very large, and they are based on either the Spanish, British or American curriculum. The best known among expats are the Amercian school, Caxton College, British School of Valencia, Cambridge House and Mas Camarena. There is even a French Lycee. But there are smaller ones too, such as Los Olivos.
Even though a lot of the private, bilingual or English speaking schools call themselves ‘international’, almost 100% of the pupils are Spanish children. Many Spanish parents nowadays want their offspring to become fluent in English. Future job prospects are important in a country where unemployment rates are still at almost 25%. Being English speaking therefore has advantages. The ‘international’ part has mostly to do with the fact that half or almost all lessons are taught in English or the curriculum is based on the American or British system. It also means for many of these schools there are waiting lists.
what language: Spanish, English, bilingual or…Valenciano?
Choosing schools in Spain, and Valencia, comes with another question. What language will my child be taught in? I believe that the younger the child, the less important it is what the main language is they are taught in and whether or not it is a British (or other) curriculum. Obviously children will learn Spanish much quicker with full immersion. Most expat parents with teenagers say their children adapted better to their new environment in an international school with a curriculum similar to what they were used to back home, especially if exams are on the horizon. A toddler? They just want to play and within weeks they’ll come home using a handful of Spanish words already.
Bilingual schools in Spain
There are a lot of bilingual schools (English and Spanish), with some following the Spanish curriculum, some the British. Some are 100% English spoken schools and then there are some other foreign languages with their own schools too (French, German). Last but not least, this is Valencia and they have their own language called Valenciano which is a bit like Catalan, although I am sure the locals will tell me otherwise.
Valenciano as a compulsary subject
Valenciano is compulsory in all schools, private or not, with a minimum amount of hours per week. It is a political thing, and depending on who the mayor is in any particular year, the hours could go up or down in the curriculum. Most schools choose to teach subjects like music, religion or science in Valenciano in addition to the actual Valenciano language classes, to make up for the required hours.
Creating multilingual children
A lot of expats freak out about the whole Valenciano thing and get frustrated that their kids have to study it, but to me it’s just another language. This is my humble opinion. Surely it can only be beneficial for a young child’s brain to learn plenty of different languages? The biggest argument against Valenciano I hear all the time is that “they only speak it in the Valencia region so what’s the point?”. Now I am Dutch and Dutch isn’t actually spoken anywhere else in the world other than the teeny tiny Netherlands and a few old far away colony islands in the Caribbean. Any expat child moving to the Netherlands has to learn Dutch if they are not in an international school. Also not particularly useful as a world language.
Your child may not stay in the Valencia region when he or she grows up, but they’ll have had the benefit of studying another language. They will pretty much be able to understand Catalan too as a bonus. Just my personal opinion, you may feel differently. The only advice I can give is to ask the school if it is possible for your child not to get Valenciano lessons until his/her understanding of Castellano is good enough.
How to get a space in a Spanish school?
When you choose schools in Spain, the next question is, how to get your child in it? Now this is the tricky bit. Like everywhere, good schools are hard to get into. Almost all bilingual or fully English semi-private and private schools are very popular among the Spanish parents. They all want their brood to speak decent English. This means it is not easy to get a place.
Spanish parents often start looking at their preferred school almost as soon as their baby is born. Then they enroll their kids as early as they can possibly start. In Spain this is the year they turn 3 and in the private schools that are offering preschool childcare, they even babies accept babies. So by the time you arrive from abroad with your 4 and 6-year old, especially halfway through the year, classes are full. You may find yourself having to put your kids in a school that wasn’t even on your shortlist.
School enrollment times in Spain
Enrollment time is usually mid May and school websites and the local municipality publish the exact dates on their websites . To enroll your child in a public or concertado school you need to live in the right catchment area to score enough points. Other factors are whether you already have siblings in the school and some other criteria – check your council website for the details. For private schools the postcode area is not a concern, but they may still have waiting lists. Many private schools have school bus transport around the city.
Choosing schools in Valencia: ask other expat parents
I hope this post has been somewhat useful for those of you thinking about moving to Spain as a family. It is tough knowing whether you are doing the right thing for your children! At the end of the day, you can start with one school and change down the line if it is not working out for you. I have heard that many people do this. It is also a good idea to join some local Facebook groups and check other people’s opinions on schools. Without one central international school in Valencia, expat children go to many different schools everywhere around town.
Be aware though that asking about schools on these forums is a bit of a mine field. Everyone has their own take on things. What suits them may not suit you and your family. Some love the all singing all dancing international private schools with the beautiful facilities and the matching price tags. Others sing the praises of their little local public school in their own neighbourhood. “The facilities may be poor but the teachers are fabulous”. If you have time, ‘shop’ around. You may just find a hidden gem.