Bilingual education in Spain

Politicians of all stripes across Spain have been attempting to raise the traditionally poor English language levels among school children in the country.

The flagship policy of this agenda has been the teaching of non-language subjects, such as history and science, in English. The idea is that continuous, immersive study will yield better results than a few hours a week of grammar and vocabulary drills. I have some direct experience in this area, having worked on translating and adapting school textbooks and teachers guides into English for these classes.

Half of Madrid’s primary schools are to be bilingual by 2015, and constructing a bilingual (or in regions such as Catalonia, trilingual) education system at speed is no easy task. Policy-makers are playing a high-stakes game in which they could either win big, or fail spectacularly. As one of my more cynical editors predicted, ‘the problem is that the kids won’t learn any English or any of the subjects they have studied in English’. Yikes!

Unfortunately, there has been a stricking lack of joined-up thinking around this ambitious policy. The fundamental requirement for successful bilingual education is to have enough teachers able to teach a range of subjects confidently in two languages. While all post-Bologna university graduates should have at least a B1 level of English, most current teachers in schools will have studied pedagogy, not languages, and most are (understandably) unprepared to impart lessons in a foreign tongue.

The logical step, therefore, is a recruitment drive of foreign, native English-speaking teachers. The problem is that Spanish teachers work for the state and are therefore funcionarios (civil servants). In Spain, all civil servants (bar temporary contract staff) are recruited via a highly inflexible and (to an outsider) incomprehensible exam system known as the oposiciones.

For an idea of how difficult to navigate the system is, take a look at this 32 page pdf document  explaining how to apply to become a teacher in Spain. It’s hard enough for Spanish people to jump through these hoops (there are private colleges which train people to pass the oposiciones), let alone foreigners unfamiliar with how they work. Note that all candidates must posess a Spanish teaching qualification, or have traversed another bureaucratic maze in order to get teaching qualifications gained abroad recognized in Spain. (The Spanish even have a specific, difficult-to-translate verb for this: homolgar.)

Consequently, there have never even been many native-English speakers teaching English in state schools, let alone any other subjects. Why put yourself through the rigmarole when you can easily get work teaching well-off kids and adults failed by the school system in private language academies? The foreigners who become civil servants in Spain are unicorns. Maybe they exist, but I’ve never met one.

Shockingly, however, it seems that at no stage in the planning of the bilingual policy did anyone sit back and think about reforming the selection process for teachers. Instead, the traditional hiring process has frequently been bypassed altogether, resulting in a number of recruitment scandals. In Valencia student and graduate ‘interns’ have been hired as low-paid contract workers, while in Madrid 28 foreigners who don’t speak Spanish have been given posts which Spanish teachers were denied the chance to even apply for. Neither move seems good for pupils or teachers, and the latter has been particularly unpopular in the current context of mass unemployment.

A better idea would have been to remove some of the barriers to entry for foreign teachers, for example by accepting degrees and teaching qualifications from other EU countries rather than approving them on a case-by-case basis, or by publishing a guide to oposiciones in English for foreigners and providing an advice and training service to help them through the selection process.

The more flexible teacher-recruitment guidelines used in the UK provide a useful point of comparison with the Spanish model. In the UK, teachers from the European Economic Area can apply for Qualified Teacher Status (using this simple form) and then start sending out CVs for advertised vacancies. Even non-European teachers ‘are able to teach in the UK for a maximum of four years before they must obtain QTS.

In fact, the UK government’s user-friendly Get into teaching website goes out of its way to make it easy for anyone interested in teaching in the UK to find out how to do so. This is in stark contrast to the Spanish pdf document explaining the oposiciones, which looks like it was written by a team of particularly sadistic lawyers.

The bilingual education policy in Madrid was promoted with a campaign featuring the inauspicious slogan ‘Yes, we want‘! The question is, how seriously do they want? Because failing to get someone to proof-read your publicity material is one thing, but failing to ensure quality teaching for a generation of students is quite another.