Overseas education: British kids experience education problems in Spain

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Foreigners who dominate certain schools, talk in their own language and isolate themselves from the native population . Not Muslim pupils in Britain, but British children in Spain

Original paper headline: The reign in Spain: Brit kids and their isolationist empire

They come here with this mentality . wanting to keep themselves to themselves and feel no obligation to integrate into our way of life."

A British minister talking tough on citizenship? The BNP outlining new policy? No, this damning verdict is not aimed at ethnic minorities in schools in Britain but at the largest - and most problematic - minority group in schools on the Costa Blanca: the British.

They are, according to a new study, worse at learning the host language and integrating into school life than any other nationality in Spain's state schools.

Teachers and students from more than 700 schools took part in the research by Spanish sociologists which found that British children - who make up 15 per cent of all pupils attending state schools in the Alicante region - "resist all opportunities of exchange with other nationalities and cultures".

More than 5,000 British children are registered in schools in Alicante, which is home to over half a million Brits. In 24 of the schools they represent more than a fifth of all pupils, and in two schools they make up the majority.

Both teachers and students reported that there was a tendency for children to segregate, and British pupils were the worst for grouping together and isolating themselves. Linguistic and cultural differences, and the relatively high concentration of British children in some centres - 80 per cent of the total are concentrated in 100 schools - were partly to blame, but the researchers found the most important factor was negative attitudes towards integration among the British children.

After the British, the next most numerous groups of foreign students are Ecuadorian, Moroccan, Romanian and Colombian.

Alberto Andres, a teacher trainer and regional education adviser for the Benidorm area, said British pupils failed to integrate as well as children from Moroccan, Russian and Chinese backgrounds, even though they had different alphabets and a poorer previous level of education.

"They carry a strong sense of English linguistic superiority and have this British view of multiculturalism: `Each to his own and each to his own God'," he said. "And they come here with this mentality, wanting to keep themselves to themselves, saying: `If you keep out my life, I'll keep out of yours' and they feel no obligation to integrate into our way of life."

Teachers also reported that "serious conflicts arose from the British pupils' difficulties in adapting and their refusal of the (Spanish) system, especially between teachers and students". The gulf between the Spanish and British education systems was partly to blame, according to the report, as "the curriculum in Spanish schools is strict and the discipline relaxed, while in British schools the curriculum is relaxed and the discipline strict".

Study from the University of Alicante

The study was carried out by Fidel Romero, Francisco Penedes and other researchers from the University of Alicante for Asti-Alicante, an educational charity, using data from the Valencian regional government's department of education.

More than 8,000 schoolchildren were quizzed and then teachers, headteachers and educational psychologists from 26 schools were interviewed. The aim of the study was to assess the impact of immigration on the region's schools as pupil numbers have increased twentyfold in the last 10 years.

There was no violence between groups in the schools, according to the report, but some teachers observed there were the "worrying beginnings of gang behaviour" among British youths in high-concentration areas, and thought that preventative work was needed.

The relatively low socio-economic and cultural background of the British children in some Spanish public schools was acknowledged. The wealthier British expats place their children in private English schools, while in Benidorm, according to Mr Andres, the state schools get the "uprooted students from less structured homes".

Spanish parents are not without blame for these "ghettoised" schools, however. Teachers and educationists were very critical of how the Spanish middle class takes their children out of these schools and put them in non fee-paying church schools to get them away from the foreign children who they complain slow down the classes and create problems.

The report concluded that "latent racism tied with unfamiliarity and fear of another culture combined to make integration difficult".

The Valencian government has denied there are any problems in its schools, issuing its own research showing that 95 per cent of children could follow what was going on in class. Last week it announced that providing language tuition and specialist support for foreign children costs ?500 million (pound;432 million) a year.

Jane Cronin, a Spanish-language teacher who has lived in Spain for more than 20 years and works with British children, parents and teachers as an adviser and mediator in schools in this area, says that although this money pays for English lessons for two years, it is not enough for many British pupils.

"There are major integration problems in some secondary schools where there are large numbers of British pupils," she said.

"Teachers report that some never speak Spanish - even after several years in the school - and that they are disruptive. Some schools have brought in psychologists to tackle the problem.

"It's not unusual for British kids to be excluded, and there is a high incidence of long-term absenteeism. On some urbanisations (housing estates mainly inhabited by expats) you see gangs of them hanging around supermarkets during school hours.

"Some are not completing school at all and many are finishing at 16 without the obligatory leaving certificate and with poor levels of written Spanish and English, which leaves them with very limited job prospects. Some people send their children back to the UK to live with a relative while they finish their education."

One secondary school facing great difficulties in Torrevieja - a town which has the largest British population of all Spanish municipalities - commissioned Ms Cronin to investigate bad behaviour among British pupils.

The students, who were aged 12-15, told her that teachers treated them unfairly simply because they were British. They said they were all lumped together and not treated as individuals. They said they were embarrassed to speak Spanish because the other students laughed at them, and that the teachers did not discipline Spanish children for this.

Ms Cronin, whose own daughters, Sara, 18, and Emma, 16, have grown up in Spain, found the students had very little, or no, concept of Spanish culture or social life.

"They seemed to reflect the attitudes of their parents, she said. Most lived on large expat estates; they watched UK TV and listened to local English-language radio at home; their parents didn't speak Spanish or have Spanish friends; the only contact they had with the language was in the classroom. But somehow their parents expected that their children would quickly learn Spanish just by being dropped into a school.

"At age six or seven it can work out OK, but the older they are the more difficult it is to adapt. Over 12, they are put into Secundario, which is a radically different environment from a British secondary school. Parents don't realise how disorientating - or traumatic, even - this change can be.

"Also, in Spain parents are expected to participate more in their children's education than in the UK. That's why there is less control and discipline in the classroom; it's assumed that this will come from home."

Report recognises problems

The authors of the report recognised that many teachers were ill-equipped to deal with such diversity and had little understanding of how linguistic difficulties affected pupils. They called for a more even distribution of foreign pupils and better training and resources for teachers, and recommended schemes like buddying, where Spanish children partner new foreign children.

Louise Clarke, 35, a reporter on a local English-language newspaper, who moved to Spain two years ago with her husband, Lee, and children Charlie, nine, and Lilly, six, says that parental involvement with the school is essential.

"I'd say Lilly is totally integrated and Charlie is almost there" she said. "They take part in all the fiestas and Lilly had been nominated as the town `Infant Queen' for the year. It's important to encourage children to get involved in extra-curricular activities in mixed groups - Charlie does football and Lilly does music - as they learn the language by making friends."

Rosa Martinez, a school teacher and councillor, had ambitious plans to encourage integration with a residential exchange programme between expat urbanisations on Orihuela Costa and the Spanish town of Orihuela just 45 minutes' drive away.

However, despite an enthusiastic response from Spanish parents this summer - who saw it as a cheap alternative to sending their children to England - none of the British parents wished to take part. Some, like mother Jackie Chambers (see below), felt wary as they didn't think their Spanish was good enough to have a child to stay.

The minister for foreign residents for the region has reported a similar weak response to other attempts to integrate European residents. Last year Maria Asuncion Prieto hit out at "the expat ghettos where Spaniards fear to tread", telling the UK ambassador and other British groups that numerous attempts to integrate European residents had failed because they had no interest in being part of Spanish society, and were only there because it is warmer and cheaper.

However, Ms Cronin's charity network, Adapt, has had some success by starting on a small scale, with social events and group tasks. Spanish and English children have jointly taken part in carol singing and religious processions, and a European Day of Languages brought teachers, students and parents from all backgrounds together. British residents are volunteering for a town hall-run summer school in Murcia helping to teach English and bringing together local primary school children of various nationalities, including five British ones.

Surprisingly, Adapt has proved more popular with older Brits. Ms Cronin thinks this could be because they have a greater commitment to living in Spain, despite their pensions having shrunk because of the weak pound.

"It's the younger families, with children, who came to Spain to service this older community that are the worst affected." The collapse of the construction industry has left many jobless and wishing to go back to the UK but unable to sell their property. These doubts about remaining in Spain probably transfer to their children."

Dumped in mainstream with no language support

Jackie Chambers, 42, has regrets about moving her daughter, Abi, 13, to Orihuela, near Alicante, from Leeds 18 months ago.

While her son, Brendan, seven, is doing very well in his primary school and has made lots of Spanish friends, Abi is struggling in the secondary system and has just been put back a year. Like all foreign children, she was automatically placed in the year below when she arrived, so now she will be with children who are two years younger.

"Martin and I thought we were giving the kids a better start in life by moving here, but because of Abi's situation we're considering going back," she said. "I know it's a Spanish school and we can't expect them to speak to her in English, but she has been offered no support whatsoever. From day one, she was on her own. There was no period of intensive Spanish classes at the start; she was just put `cold' into the mainstream, with just three hours of Spanish per week.

"There are three other English girls in her class who have helped her, but at the same time this has been a hindrance as they stick together and she hasn't made any Spanish friends. The teachers don't seem to make any effort to involve them in the class; the form tutor is not of any help either.

"Back in Leeds, in Abi's old school, Eastern European children were given one-to-one support; I wish we had that here.

"There's no point in me going up to the school as my Spanish is not good enough. We had to use a translator to get her enrolled. We live on an urbanisation of about 1,000 houses, which is nearly all British, so there's not much need for Spanish, but the whole family is having Spanish lessons privately.

"We're also paying for the children to have English lessons so that their written English doesn't suffer. The private tutor teaches them the UK curriculum, so at least we can keep that option open."

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