Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

First Day of School In Spain

Por: | 25 de septiembre de 2013

Hackett One

Photo Credit: Bon Voyage Magazine


By Sheridan Becker
Barcelona, SPAIN -- The first school day of any academic year is always a keeper for the memory banks. Yet I never had a first-day-of-school experience quite as memorable as the one I had last week with my children in a rather exotic locale. Our host country Spain has many similarities to my home state in the U.S., Florida -- for instance, sunshine, oranges and, well, the Spanish language. But the differences are evident, starting with the educational system.

Beyond its obvious attributes, Spain has an abundance to offer expatriates like myself, with enough services to inspire accolade after accolade. This American was amazed by the bounty of international schools that are on hand in Barcelona alone. According to the International School Consultancy Group (a British-owned-and-operated consulting firm), there are 6,717 international schools operating worldwide with a total enrollment of 3.4 million students ranging from 3 to 18 years of age. It seems like more than half of these schools must be located in Barcelona. All kidding aside, one can choose from an astounding number of them, regardless of any economic hardships that people are facing in this day and age.

In the end, I fell hard for St. Paul’s School, a private establishment that follows the Spanish curriculum with classes taught in English -- and a heap load of extracurricular activities that might inspire any parent to consider re-enrolling in school today. It's strikes me as a far cry from the standard public-school educational environment in the United States. I felt even better about selecting St. Paul's when I learned that each student receives a personalized Apple iPad –- the latest edition. “Oh, wow. Do we get to keep it?” asked my 11-year old son. “Of course," said his homeroom teacher.

If I had to assess school life in Barcelona so far, I'd have to report  that I never had it as good as my kids do -- and I went to boarding school during my high school years. Consider the St. Paul's difference: Exquisite school uniforms from Spain’s most exclusive department store; skilled, highly-accredited teachers from all around the world; gourmet 3-course lunches where drinks are served to students in glass goblets; and monogrammed everything, from school uniforms right down to the napkins. And where else in the world can a student simultaneously be immersed in four languages over the course of one academic calendar year –- English, Spanish, Catalan and French? That's school in Barcelona for you.

According to my 11-year old son, Spain produces the best football players on the planet. That might have been enough to excite him about living here, but when he received his iPad at the start of classes, it put him over the top. Now, he believes that schools in Spain are as awesome as the country's football stars.

When I came to Barcelona to expand on an American-based start-up enterprise, I knew the city would be magnificent and enriching. But I'm even more delighted by how inspiring it's turning out to be for my children, starting with that first day of school. When classes were over, I noticed the kids actively playing around with their iPads. In a typically maternal way, I asked the children if they were doing their first assignments from school. My son looked up at me and said, "Mom, I am trying to figure out a way to create an app, so I know how many Spanish football players will playing in the next World Cup. Then, I have my French homework to do."

It had been the first day of school in a new country. My son was reaping the benefits, and I would be, too. As my fellow American (and the man behind the development of the iPad) Steve Jobs said, "Think different.”

Hay 13 Comentarios

Dear Sheridan Becker,

I'm an academic at the U of Barcelona and the president of an English-speaking parents' association here. We'd like to you to write a brief review of your son's school for our website. We are especially interested in the accommodation of native/heritage speakers of English--that is, giving them a chance to work in a way not designed for an English-as-a-Second-Language environment. If interested, please get in touch.

You'd be doing many parents a great favour.

Best wishes,

John Stone

"All kidding aside, one can choose from an astounding number of them, regardless of any economic hardships that people are facing in this day and age."
It seems that more careful editing would not have saved you from more fundamental errors. Please be more considerate of those who do not have the opportunity to shop for a private education and rely on state-funded schools. Do not compare private international schools in Barcelona and public schools in the US. Do not write about any education system with one week of experience based on an iPad. As an American teacher, I am embarrassed by this non-sense passed off as insight.

Sheridan, dear, apart from the bollocks you spout about "Spanish" schools, this is a very elite institution far beyond the means of most of us. Who told you your kids would have to repeat two grades? When my daughter went to study in the States she had to skip one grade FORWARDS, so low was the level she encountered in what was, in many ways, a school to envy: no graffiti, the kids WALKED in the corridors speaking in low voices, were scrupulously polite to the teachers and seemed to be enjoying themselves. The sports installations were first class: basketball stadium seated 3000 and there was an auditorium for 800.

I am glad you are happy Sheridan as we all do what we feel is the best for our children.
I do feel this is an advertisement for this International School though! I also do not see how materialistic worship is beneficial to young children... fancy uniforms, drinking from goblets and free iPads!
We have honest feedback of our own experience of education in Spain if you would like to read them.

Welcome to Spain. Now's your chance to find out a bit about where you live and what's happening here.

Here's an alternate reality:
My son is also 11. He has gone to free Spanish-language public schools in Madrid since he was two years old. His teachers have been excellent, highly educated, committed professionals. We taught him English at home. He is now working on his third and fourth languages (French and German) in an excellent (criminally underfunded) public bilingual instituto down the street. We feel very fortunate.

There were certainly never any free iPads in his classes, nor fancy uniforms, but he has learned so much being in classes that integrate immigrants from around the world, Spanish kids from all around Spain, various socioeconomic realities, children with learning/behavioral issues, etc.

The cost of school books and lunch used to be subsidized in Madrid for families in need. This is no longer the case. It fell on individual teachers to find some way to help the kids whose families couldn't afford the 150 euros+ cost of books. Better books were jettisoned for cheaper, easier to find ones. Many children now have to leave school and walk home by themselves to eat with grandparents or even on their own, because 5 euros a day is too costly for their families. The librarian was let go and the kids lost their access to their library most of the time. In his grade school classes, for the past three years, they were unable to go on field trips to museums or theaters, because the Madrid local government would not help to subsidize it and many parents couldn't afford to pay the extra 10 euros because they are unemployed and living from day to day in a state of crisis that you can see etched into the stress lines of their faces.

My son and his classmates are old enough to remember when things were better in Spain before "the crisis." Did you know there's an economic crisis here? It's the Great Depression. It's an absolute catastrophe! Did you know that children who have gone to protest their schools not having proper heat and other basic necessities have been beaten by the police when they tried to bring attention to the problem?

Rather than turn on each other or focus on how different their economic realities might be, these kids are tight-knit and "solidario"--with each other and with their professors--looking for ways to help each other out. They have become very creative and astute about making the very most of the very limited resources they are offered and sharing them equally. They are the generation of my grandparents, resourceful scrimpers and savers, so much less materialistic than the generation before them.

There's so much more to education than iPads and uniforms. Your home state in the US, Florida, has been sabotaging public education and its university system for years. I hope that being in Spain, learning the language(s) (you're going to do that, I hope), will open your eyes to the tragic economic situation you have inserted yourself into. At some point, you will realize how this article would sound to people who live here and have a better understanding of what's going on than you do. Please check back in and let us know how that goes.

Good luck to all pupils, hope you will learn a lot.

Yes, a VERY elitist point of view and you are way out of touch with the way 99% of Catalan's and Spanish (and many expats like myself) live. Have fun living in your safe, little bubble.

I wish I could say that most schools are like this in Spain, but they aren't. Having worked in public schools in Spain, sadly, most of them are not like this. The children are in "bilingual" classes with decidedly non-bilingual teachers.

Your school does sound nice; I just don't think it's the norm.

Hi Sheridan,

I just wanted to mention that I don't think the public school system was necessarily a closed door for you and am surprised you were told they would have to repeat 2 grades!

When we moved from the USA to Madrid my children were age 5 and 10 and then we moved again to Girona when they were 8 and 13. Each move a whole new language. We definitely had our concerns and at times it wasn't easy, but the language was the least of our worries! Kids are like sponges and leaned very quickly With their "immersion ", attentive parenting and a little extra help they were trilingual in no time.
But every family situation is unique and it also depends on how long you plan to stay and your objectives for your children.
We didn't have a choice of schools. It was public or nothing..We could not afford private school, nor are we catholic and so a religious affiliated school subsidized by the government was not an option and furthermore very difficult to get into.. If your situation is temporary then it makes sense to keep up an English curriculum . Like Jesus said you wrote from your experience, but I agree with him in that it is not the experience of most children here. Anyhow I wish you and your children a very happy and positive experience in Barcelona which is a fantastic city!

Thank you for your comments, Jesus. The United States is in a similar state as Spain when it comes to public school funding. This year, before the school semester kicked in, I was resigned to my children using second-hand computers for class.

Thank you April for your comments. Unfortunately I am resigned to an English-based curriculum because my children are too late in the game to benefit from full-on immersion. If we did what you suggested my children would have to repeat 2 grades, and as a parent you can imagine how difficult that could be. I wish I could be as fortunate enough and follow in your footsteps but sadly that door was not open for us.

I'm Spanish and also have a daughter, who's also 11 years old. I fear that what you reflect in this article is not a common standard, and I can see we are lucky. Our daughter goes to a catholic school, being the courses upt to secondary covered by the state, as if we had chosen a public school. My daughter uses uniform, but the only Ipad she uses is the one we have at home. If you read carefully what's published in the newspapers everyday, Spanish government is very far from offering Ipads to children. Education is not one of the priorities, and many people has found that public aids covering basic necessities, such as lunch or books, are not avialable anymore. In Spain, as everywhere, wealth helps a lot when choosing a school. What you reflect in your article is only describing your experience. I'm Spanish, my friends are spanish, and all of us have children, a no one of our children goes to classes like yours.

Sounds like a typical private school for typical wealthy families. I am an American mother,too, and my children have gone to public school in Spain. I am shocked by your materialistic point of view and marvel over IPADs and uniforms. I think your kids would have a much more "exotic" experience going to a public school where they would most likely learn what it truly is like to be a Spaniard or a Catalan and THATS school in Barcelona for you.

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:

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