Most parents consider factors such as academics and location when choosing the right school for their children. Ex-pat families, however, need to consider the language in which their child will receive their education. A strong command of Spanish is the quickest way for children to integrate and make fast friends with their classmates in Madrid. Nevertheless, fluency in English will important to their futures. So how can new families in Madrid find the right balance?
When it comes to picking a school there are several categories to choose from based on language–and each presents specific linguistic advantages (and potential challenges!) for your child.
This category is fairly self-explanatory. Whether the school is public, private, or concertado (semi-private) Spanish is the dominant language of learning. English will likely be taught as a foreign language several classes per week, but all other subjects will be taught in Spanish. Children who do not speak fluent Spanish are often placed several grade levels below their age group, and typically catch up very quickly to their peers, skipping grades as they advance in Spanish.
Spanish-only education, then, is often an advantageous choice for families who prioritize their children’s integration into the local culture. If your children are not native English speakers, jumping immediately into a bilingual education may be overwhelming for young learners, and they may struggle academically–as might children who are particularly shy or who demonstrate other special needs.
2. Bilingual Curriculum
To say that a school is bilingue means that 30 to 50 percent of classes are given in English. Other than Mathematics and Spanish Language, any class from Social Sciences to Physical Education can be in English. Teachers in public bilingual schools must be certified to teach their subject in the foreign language. Many children finish bilingual elementary schools with a strong command of English grammar and an impressive vocabulary, going on to study at bilingual high schools (which they must pass an entrance exam to enter).
If your child does not have a solid command of Spanish, the bilingual education can be difficult throughout the first year or so of schooling. Some children may struggle academically of socially until they become more fluent Spanish speakers. Nevertheless, many children in Madrid have successfully picked up both English and Spanish at the same time. Considering that half or fewer of their classroom hours are in English, advanced learners may welcome the challenge.
3. Foreign Curriculum (e.g., IB, UK)
Families particularly concerned that their children learn fluent English in addition to Spanish may want to consider a school based on a foreign curriculum. Although this limits your family’s choices to private, international schools, it is important to note the difference between a “bilingue” school and a British or American school.
While a bilingual school may offer up to 50 percent of classroom hours in English, a British school (for example) offers a curriculum more like that of “an English school that happens to be in Madrid”. British or American curriculum school offers the majority of courses in English, and adheres quite strictly to the national curriculum of that country. Many international schools require students to achieve high proficiency, if not fluency, in English in order to graduate.
This makes international schools an advantageous choice for Spanish students who want true fluency in the language, and for ex-pat families who want their children to pursue a challenging curriculum that mirrors the education they would receive at a prep school in their home country.
Parents should note, nevertheless, that many private international schools in Madrid boast mixed demographics or a majority of Spanish students. Although this means that your children will become quickly integrated into Spanish culture, many schools require Spanish proficiency for admission. Ex-pat parents may want to consider that international education is linguistically more rigorous than even the bilingual programs, and if your children do not speak Spanish, they may struggle in such an advanced environment.
Adapting to a new school and a new language will be challenging for any child. Parents are advised to support their children academically and emotionally by being patient, helping with homework, or hiring a tutor. Most importantly, put careful consideration into the choice of your child’s school. There is no rush for your family to speak fluent Spanish or English immediately. Different children learn languages at different rates, and your child will reach fluency regardless.
If you need help finding a school that suits your family’s need, do not hesitate to send us an email! We are here and happy to help.