Learning as you go

The unit in which I always have to talk the most about false cognates in my Spanish 101 classes is the university unit. There must be some good linguistic reason as to why half of the words we use in America for schooling mean something completely different in Spain. Unfortunately, I don’t know of one, so you will probably get to the end of this post and still be asking yourself, “But why?”, but even so, I thought it might be interesting to explain a little bit about the educational system here in España so that you readers can have some background to what it is I do. I give you fair warning: I am only vaguely acquainted with what happens after elementary school, AND even what I write here is about to change with the many reforms currently working their way through the government.


In Spain, everyone has the right to a free, public education, and mandatory schooling goes from 6 years old up to 16 years old, just like in the US. However, one enormous difference between the US and Spain is that here after age 16, you get a diploma certifying that you have completed your mandatory education. Apart from this education, you can also go to pre-school from age 3 to 5, which is also free, and you can continue with high school after age 16 for 2 more years to get your “bachillerato” or high school diploma, and this is also free. After getting your bachillerato, you can go on to university, which is not free, but may as well be, since they are super cheap.


So here in Alcalá, there is one daycare, 3 elementary schools, and 1 high school. You can tell the elementary schools from the high school by their names: elementary schools are called “colegios” and the high school is the “instituto”. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who goes to what school, because for the colegios at least there will be children of the same age at all 3 schools. Turns out the families get to choose where their kids attend, but it also tends to go by areas; I live more in the center of the town and very few of my students live near me. I’ll see maybe one or two kids when I’m out shopping or walking (and they will be so happy to get to say “hello” to me). However Inma (the English teacher) lives right across from our school and she sees whole groups of students all the time. Two of the schools are public schools, and they have the same beginning to their names: C.E.I.P. (colegio de educación infantil y primaria). You can also tell that both public schools have preschools attached to them because of that I for infantil, but there are some schools that are just called C.E.P.s because they start with 1st grade.


It’s pretty simple in the colegios because the grades are the same as in the US. We technically do talk about “cycles”, but on a practical level there is no real division between the first cycle (1st and 2nd grades), the second cycle (3rd and 4th grades) and the third cycle (5th and 6th grades). They don’t really do activities together in cycles and they don’t share curriculum outlines or anything like that. And a kid would never say, “I’m in Colegio Juan Armario, 2nd cycle”, they would just say, “I’m in Colegio Juan Armario, 3rd grade”. The instituto throws everything out of whack though because they start all over again from 1: 1st ESO is 7th grade, 2nd ESO is 8th grade, 3rd ESO is 9th grade, and 4th ESO is 10th grade (ESO stands for Educación Secundaria Obligatoria, or mandatory secondary education). Then, if you go on to get your bachillerato, you start counting yet again: 1st Bachillerato is 11th grade and 2nd Bachillerato is 12th grade.


After your bachillerato you can take the exams (called “selectividad”) to go to a university, and there you can get a diploma (like our Bachelor’s) in 3 years. That isn’t an accelerated program: that’s the standard amount of time it takes to get a degree, assuming you aren’t studying to be a doctor or something. If you don’t want to do a bachillerato, you can begin working at 16, or you can go to a vocational school and take “modules” and then do some sort of skilled labor. Basically, if you are European, or very familiar with the system they use in the UK, for example, it is very easy to understand the system here, but for me, and the other Americans I would assume, it was a bit of an adjustment.


OK, that was a lot of background for the part that really impacts me: what the school day is like! School happens Monday through Friday, although I don’t work on Fridays (yippee!). The bell rings to begin school at 9 am, and the kids all go to their normal classrooms with their teachers. They have various classes during the day with different instructors, with a 30 minute recess/snack break from 11:30 to 12. At 2 pm the bell rings to end the day and everyone goes home. There is no break for lunch because no one eats lunch before 2 pm, silly! The kids all go home to eat with their families. There are also afterschool activities, like soccer, study hall, and my wonderful English classes which start at 4 pm. Those are all done by 7 and unless there is some sort of performance or parent meetings the school is locked up until the next day.


We do trimesters instead of semesters or quarters, which is kind of nice because it breaks down to about 3 months per trimester. At the end of each trimester the students get their grades, and I know in December it was a big production. Everyone came to the school for one of those aforementioned parent meetings and picked up their grades in person. There was also a lot more failing of students than I thought there would be, especially since the grades are given in numbers from 1 to 10 and you have to get something like a 3 to fail. Sometimes instead of the number, the teacher will put a notation like “Suspenso” (for fail), “Aprobado” (for pass), or “Sobresaliente” (for outstanding). I know of 2 students that were either held back last year or are going to be held back next year and one is a 6th grader! I told Inma, in the US you basically have to not be able to read or count to get held back at that stage. But the student who is currently repeating 6th grade can read and count fine, he just failed too many subjects to go on to high school. Harsh! The other student is a 5 year old and he is really struggling. At that stage in the US it’s common to hold kids back too, so I was less surprised when I found that out.


Each school is different in what it offers as well, and it all depends on what “plans” your school is involved in. Obviously my school has implemented the “Bilingual Plan”, and our specific goal is to have 30% of the class delivery over the whole school be in English. I also know we use 2 other plans: the “Equality Plan” and the “Environmental Plan”. I’m not involved in the implementation of either of those plans, but I know the “Equality Plan” means we pay a lot more attention to things like “Peace Day” and “Against Gender Violence Day”, and for now the “Environmental Plan” means we have an obsession with turning off the lights and computers and we visit the National Park and the Botanical Gardens a lot. In the spring we do more with this plan, like clean up a local river.


Now that you are wise in the ways of Spanish schooling, you can try to make sense of a Spanish transcript. This is what I did several months ago when I helped my co-worker translate his academic records to apply for a job in America. Half of the time was spent trying to explain things like, why a “bachillerato” is not the same as a Bachelor’s, what would one call a mandatory education completion certificate, and why Americans spend so much money at universities to take less specific classes in a longer time frame. The solution? Just get a Master’s; at least in the US and Europe it is the same thing.


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