School for sandals
Six months ago Mike Ratty, aged 50, made a life-changing decision and landed a dream job. After years in senior management he went back to teaching his subject - biology - in a British school abroad. These days he has a maximum class size of 16, his students call him Mike and he couldn't seem more at ease chatting to them - dressed in sandals, shorts and T-shirt.
Mr Ratty has made the kind of career change many teachers in the UK only dream about: he's moved to a school on the Canary island of Lanzarote, where the temperature is rarely below 18C and where the extraordinary natural surroundings and unique animal life add spice to his subject. It's a far cry from the deputy headship of a large sixth-form college in Birmingham, where "admin, responsibility and the rat race" were getting him down.
British staff account for 22 of the 30 full-time teachers (along with five Spaniards, two Germans and a South African) and four of the eight supply staff at Colegio Hispano Brit nico, an independent school for three to 18-year-olds. The roll is a mix of British and Spanish pupils, although, unlike the other British schools sprinkled around Spain (there are more than 50), at Colegio Hispano Brit nico the former outnumber the latter by about eight to one.
The school is set in Lanzarote's distinctive lunar landscape in the south of the island, the sea clearly visible from the courtyard and the only breaks in the view the curving spines of the white houses that climb the hills. Its British owner-headteacher Roger Deign, 59, says: "I am fortunate in that if I put an advert in The TES for a science teacher I usually receive around 100 responses. Even if I don't advertise, I get around 1,000 applications a year.
"Many of the staff have been heads or deputies in large secondaries. I pay them the going Spanish rate, about a third or less of what they were earning, but they have an unparalleled quality of life here."
Part of the attraction is immediately apparent in the warm, almost dreamy atmosphere in the playground before classes begin. "It's a pleasure to be here," says IT teacher Colin Macrae, 41. But the relaxed mood belies the extraordinary academic results achieved. "The kids really want to learn," adds Mr Macrae.
One example is Cecil Remmler, who, at just 13, recently passed 12 GCSEs at grade C and above, with D grades in three others. "I didn't prepare well enough for my GCSEs," he says, "but I am organising myself better for my A-levels." He will sit AS levels this year and A-levels in June 2004, at just 15.
Faye Hill, who has just turned 14, also recently passed 12 GCSEs at grade C and above. "I didn't think about it," she says. "I just did them because I'd been put into a class that was challenging for me."
Their results are not unusual in a school where all 400 pupils prepare to take at least 11 GCSEs. Many of them are the children of fishermen and bar and restaurant staff, the kind of families whose children don't always experience post-16 education. But they pay the fees, from pound;430 to pound;1,160 a term, because of what the school achieves and how it does it.
The children start to learn English at three and are introduced to physics and science at seven. As part of a policy introduced 10 years ago, all pupils can touch-type by the time they start to use computers at 11. This system has been largely shaped by the head, who seems respected by - and on teasing terms with - his teachers. An indication of Mr Deign's rigorous approach can be found in the staff handbook, where he writes: "I want no easing off on the last day. The more miserable end of term the children have, the happier I will be."
Walking around the classrooms, the most overt sign of a competitive ethos is the list of pupils posted by the door, in the order of their last exam results. Children have the opportunity to change their position every three months in a short test. Mr Deign argues that having high expectations is important and that is why the children are all put in for the final exams.
"We had one child who would never normally be entered for anything, but he now has two pages of results," he explains.
Roger Deign was born in Manchester and educated at Stamford school in Lincolnshire, where the distribution of lessons, 40-minute classes and competitive house structure later gave him the basis for his own system. He gained a degree in physics, and by the age of 29, thanks to some shrewd property deals, he had made enough to leave the UK and give up work. He and his family relocated to Lanzarote - which in 1973 had only one tarmac road - because it was in Europe and "seemed to have potential".
After a year during which the family simply enjoyed the sun, Mr Deign's eldest child reached school age, presenting a dilemma for the expat. As there were no British schools on the island, "I decided to build one of my own", he says with the same casual but determined air that marks his school.
He started off renting a building and importing four British teachers in 1976, and in 1982, using his experience of the construction industry, put up a new building. "The school was for my eldest son and it grew with him," Mr Deign continues. "When he got to Oxford, I considered closing it down.
But then I thought, 'He has established a path and I can take others through the same route'." In 1985 he decided to devote all his energies to the school, taking it from 40 pupils to its current 400 (there are plans for 600), offering, this year, 17 subjects at A-level. A grass football pitch (unusual on this rocky island), running track and swimming pool are being built. And students will soon be able to add DJ-ing to their media studies course, as the school has just opened its own radio station.
Kevin Dolan, 42, a physics teacher who recently came to the island from Bluecoat school in Coventry "after a mid-life crisis", says he was pleasantly surprised to find his request for pound;165,000-worth of physics equipment immediately granted. The only difficulty teachers mention is the cost of property; the cut in salary makes the gap particularly difficult to bridge for those without capital.
But however attractive the school and life on the island are, the teachers know that most children will eventually leave. "In two years I hope to study medicine at Cambridge if they will accept me at 16," says Faye Hill.
"But either way I won't move back here." Cecil Remmler agrees. "I like it here, but it is too small. When I'm older I want to live in a city."
It's a sentiment not shared by Mike Ratty, who talks for many other teachers at the school when he says: "I plan to stay in Lanzarote. The heat changes everything and makes people more laid back. I can swim, dive or go walking all year round. Life is easier here."
Colegio Hispano Brit nico, POBox 228, Arrecife de Lanzarote, telfax: 0103428 173066; www.nabss.orghispano.htm
HOW THE BRITS REIGN IN SPAIN
Hispano Brit nico en Lanzarote is not a typical example of a British school in Spain as the majority of its pupils are from English-speaking families.
Most such schools now teach more Spanish than UK children, who predominate only in expat coastal areas.
Spanish parents want their children to have a British education due to the increasing international importance of English. Since Spain's isolation ended with the death of General Franco in 1975, incomes have soared, and many people have chosen to boost their children's opportunities by sending them to a British school. Spain has more British schools than any other country in Europe. In 1975 there were 16, today there are more than 50.
British schools offer a mixed curriculum. Most belong to the National Association of British Schools in Spain (Nabss), which is responsible for inspections and authorising schools as British.
Most of their pupils go on to study in Spanish universities, although many others sit British exams. Last year, there were 10,000 entries from Spain for the Cambridge International Examinations GCSEs and A-levels.
The rapid growth in British schools has had implications for the Spanish education system. Six years ago the government launched an initiative with the British Council to give bilingual education to children from the age of six. Infant and primary teachers were brought over from the UK to work alongside Spanish teachers in 42 schools in and around Madrid; the project is likely to be expanded throughout Spain. The idea is that bilingualism will become commonplace.