Interview with Bridget Nelson
Bridget, how long have you been in Sitges?
I´ve lived in Cataluyna for 25 years, 23 of those in Sitges
How many children do you have and what are their names and ages?
I have two children, Daniel who is 15 and Rebeca who is 8
What nationality is your partner and what language do you speak to your children at home?
My husband is Scottish but he´s lived in Sitges for 33 years.We speak to our children in English, although after so many years here it´s more of a “Spanglish” really.
How well integrated would you say you and your children are?
I would say that we are all well integrated here now, - Sitges is a small town which has made it easier but there are still times when I feel an outsider
What has been your impression of education in Catalunya so far?
I have to say quite disappointing. The Private Schools have lots of positive points but in the end are run as businesses with profit being the most important thing. As far as the State Schools go, I have seen a great improvement in Catalan schools – they are moving towards a more child centred approach but are still a long way off. In general the buildings are uninspiring, little importance is given to displaying the children´s work and they are far from being what I would consider – a stimulating environment. I was probably really spoiled because I worked in a lovely Primary School in England which had fantastic interactive displays we had to change every 6 weeks, bees making their honeycomb, tadpoles, incubators with ducks´ eggs etc.... I also think that the way teachers are employed and trained and the lack of external school assessment here is hindering any great improvement in the system.
You are a trained teacher, what experience do you have of teaching in Catalunya?
I have worked in two of the Private Schools – St Peter´s and Escaan. I don´t have the relevant qualifications to work in a State School here- but I regularly do workshops and storytelling in my children´s school.The rest of my experience has been as a teacher of English as a Foreign language and 4 years ago I began Planet English Morning Club- an International nursery.
What are the options for families moving to Catalunya from abroad in regards to schooling for their children?
They can choose between the State system which offers education from 3 – 18 years, or the Private System which includes the many International Schools and also Foreign language schools such as the German School or Japanese School.There is also a middle option of State funded schools which are privately run but receive funding from the Government and so are quite closely controlled. The majority of these have a religious foundation.
What age do children start school in Catalunya?
Children are not legally obliged to start school until they are 6, but the reality is that most parents take up the school place at 3 because they are working and also want to ensure a place in the school of their choice.
In your opinion what are the main advantages and disadvantages of sending children to a local school or international school?
International Schools generally have better facilities, in theory but not always the case – smaller class numbers , and teachers who have been trained in child – centred education. Of course the language is an important factor especially for families who expect to return to their country. For non English speaking parents wanting their children to attain a high standard in English – it´s also probably the best option. Disadvantages are that they are generally not so well integrated into the local community – especially in Barcelona, and probably don´t follow local culture or traditions so much. State Schools on the other hand, live their local culture to the full, but the class sizes can be quite big and in general educational methods are still quite traditional and in my opinion, not very child centred. The quality of the teaching is very varied – especially in Secondary education. Children who go to the local state school probably pick up Castellano and Catalan much quicker than children who go to International Schools.
How do people apply for international schools?
International Schools have their own application system- the best thing is to phone the school, arrange a visit and they will tell you the rest. Some schools have got a waiting list so it’s a good idea to touch base with the school as soon as possible.
For people opting to send their children to local schools how many places are there and how does the application process, point and lottery system work?
If you are registered at the Town Hall, the local education authority is obliged to provide your child with a school place from 3 years old. You can choose which school you prefer, but don´t always get a place in your first choice school. The application process is quite complicated and all the documents are in Catalan but the OAC can help you with this. Details on this are in the “ Application Process” on this website.
How do people choose their schools? Is there any ranking system?
Choice of school is a very personal decision. I can only speak for Sitges and a little bit for San Pere where schools come in and out of fashion. Catalan families often opt for the school right in the centre, especially if their parents and grandparents also went to the school. The prospect of having a new school building within a few years ( Agnés de Sitges ) or special language schemes in any one school are also factors which influence people´s decisions. Although all the schools in Sitges are now very multi cultural, CEIP Maria Ossó and CEIP Agnés probably have a higher percentage of people from Northern Europe and North America.
Once a child has a place at the school, what is the process prior to starting and how do the first few weeks work for very young children (i.e. 3 year olds)?
There are a few weeks where people can try and argue their case for a place in any school, and there are sometimes some changes, but the definitive list comes out in May. You are then invited to go along to your school and fill in all the necessary forms and hand in things like vaccination certificates, photos etc. Every school has its own induction system.Usually the class is divided and mornings or days are staggered for the first week. After this though its business as usual for your three year old : 9 – 12-30 and 3 – 4.30! If you are lucky you may get an understanding teacher who doesn´t mind you sending your child for the mornings only for a while.
What advice would you give to best prepare a child for starting school in Catalunya?
To prepare your child for starting any school I would advise the parents to start talking to them about the whole thing quite a long time before. Go and have a look at it from the outside, involve them in the process of buying their school bag, school shoes etc. Talk to them about what kind of things they will be doing Try and make sure they are as independent as possible when they start as regards personal hygiene , and don´t send them to school in trousers or shoes they can´t put on and take off themselves. Obviously it’s better if the child has been exposed to Catalan and / or Spanish so a Catalan babysitter prior to starting school is not a bad idea. If all else fails don´t forget the cartoons on Catalan TV !! Nowhere near as good as CBeebies but... As parents you will also be faced with all the school vocabulary in Catalan – painting apron, snack bag etc so invest in a good dictionary or better still make friends quickly with someone at the school gate who will help you. The most important thing is for you to be confident and positive about the experience. On day one – hand over your child with a cheerful smile and then run away before bursting into tears!
Do you have to pay for books and materials and if so approximately how much?
Yes. It´s usually the Parent Association AMPA who organizes the buying and distribution of school books. At my children’s schools we pay 20 € per family per year to join the AMPA, around 60 € for materials and between 80 €and 300€ for books Some schools run a recycling system or organize a second hand book market to try and ease the cost. School trips and school camp are extra.
What hours do 3 years olds do? Can they come home for lunch or do they have to stay at school?
I think nearly all schools are 9 – 12.30 and 3 – 4.30 for children in the three preschool years. Most schools offer a service from 8 or 8.30 in the morning and after school for working parents or families with older children . Your child can stay for lunch or come home but packed lunches are not an option. Most schools allow you to put your child in for lunch on odd days.
For children who stay at school for lunch, what do they do in the lunch break?
It depends on the school. Lunchtime activities are usually run by the AMPA. Typical activities are library, video, extra English , craft activities, theatre and sports competitions like basketball tournaments etc.
Is there a set curriculum for 3-6 year olds?
There isn´t a set curriculum – schools follow guideline set down by the Ministry of Education about the skills they should be aiming towards which in P3 are largely to do with socialization, sharing, looking after their materials etc. Most schools seem to work exclusively from activity books. Schools in Sitges have “ Sitges “ as a subject and study the names of the giants, local fiestas etc. A big difference from British schools is that your child will learn to read and write first in CAPITAL LETTERS and then at age 6 go straight into joined up cursive writing. Explain to me the logic of that !!
How much sport is played at local schools?
My children have 2 P.E. lessons a week which I think is pretty normal. Preschool children seem to have “ Psicomotricidad” which is all about developing body skills, and then later P.E. lessons are nearly almost all based on games skills. Swimming is usually offered a various stages during their school life, and in Sitges children in Year 5 and 6 do sailing. Creative movement or dance is sometimes included in PE lessons but school gyms are very poorly equipped and I have never heard of a large apparatus lesson with ropes, beams, a- frames etc
What after school activities do local schools offer?
In Sitges the Patronato de deportes organizes after school sports clubs “ Pre- sport” or football or basketball, and the various AMPAs organize activities such as extra English, theatre, extra maths etc.There are also lots of other after school activities such as gymnastics, ballet, music etc organized by private enterprises.
How do parents communicate with the teachers to find out about the child’s progress?
In preschool you usually accompany your child to the classroom door so you see the teacher every day and can make a quick comment – although it’s not always so easy if you are not confident in Spanish or Catalan and there are lots of other pushy mums around. You can ask for an interview with your child´s teacher if you want a more in-depth chat. Some schools have a school diary where you can jot down odd remarks and the teacher can let you know if there are any problems.
At what age do children take examinations?
At around 8 or 9 the school usually starts setting “ controls”which are internal tests in various subjects . The Generalitat does testing at 2º Primary and 2º Secondary to check general school standards.
How much Spanish are children generally taught? In your opinion do children who attend local schools generally learn to communicate in Spanish as well as Catalan?
Children don´t receive any Spanish until they are 6 and then they have 2 hours a week . Many people complain that the standard of Castellano- especially written is very poor - but in my opinion the language of the playground has always been Castellano – even more so now there are so many immigrants to Cataluyna- especially people from South America. My son switches from Catalan to Spanish according to which friend he is with.
Would you recommend parents giving their children extra Spanish/Catalan lessons?
I think that families who don´t speak Spanish or Catalan at home have to make a big effort to reinforce and develop the language – they have a lot of catching up to do ! It may be enough to watch local TV, go to the cinema or theatre or sign up for local clubs, but some children definitely benefit from extra help from a private teacher – especially once they start getting homework. I have a University student who helps my son with his Catalan and maths because I only confuse him if I try and explain it.
For parents of young children i.e. 3 year olds, a big fear is that the child will not learn to read or write in their native language. What can parents do about this?
I think this is a real problem. You can be so busy trying to integrate your child into the Catalan that you can forget about your own language! Regular visits back to your home country can refresh their vocabulary but you need to try and read with them as well – easier said than done when the school day is so long here! There are lots of good websites to spark their interest in written English and maybe you could get relatives to send over comics and magazines about their interests.
What school do your children go to? Why did you choose this school and are you happy with your choice?
Both my children started at CEIP Esteve Barrachina - I picked it because I really liked the Head at that time and because it had a nice normal atmosphere – a nice mix of children - and reminded me of places I had taught in England. My son is now at the secondary school “ Joan Ramon Benapres” In both schools I am disappointed at the lack of commitment by many of the teachers, and at Benapres I have been shocked by the poor quality of some of the teaching, the disorganization and lack of self – evaluation by the school. Secondary schools in general have a very poor record with 30 % children leaving with no qualifications
Updated - Sep 2011