Trying to find the perfect school

A while ago, I wrote about my experience as a foreign parent when my daughter started school at three years old in the public system here in Barcelona. She was happy enough there, and as the saying goes; if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But as we looked ahead to the primária stage, I started to wonder whether there might be a better option for her education.

The choice we faced will be familiar to many international families living abroad – whether to embrace the public education system with all the benefits of community integration that brings, or somehow find the money for an international school that can provide an education in English and possibly a less traditional style of teaching.

Why make a change now?

One consideration was language. While Catalan has been no barrier to my daughter, who speaks it fluently, my low level has hampered my ability to be as involved in her education as I’d like to be. I also doubted whether the fairly basic English classes provided in the public school would leave her well-equipped to cope if we were to end up moving to an English-speaking country in the future.

But what concerned me more than the language issue was the very traditional approach to teaching I had seen over the three years we’d spent at our local school. There seemed to be a huge emphasis on conformity, obedience, and following instructions – and a corresponding lack of interest in children’s natural curiosity, creativity or differing individual needs. From fellow parents with older children, I had learned that hours of homework and frequent exams become part of children’s routine from early in the prímaria stage. Some new methods are gradually being introduced, but the wheels of change turn slowly.

It wasn’t that the teachers were unkind – my daughter’s teacher was a sensitive and dedicated woman who all the children adored. Nevertheless, the approach to learning was something I could never get used to. I once visited the class to read a story in English. The teacher had prepared an accompanying activity – a photocopy of the bird character in the book which the children had to colour in. After I read the story, we walked around the class as the children got busy with the crayons. Pictures that most resembled those in the book were praised effusively, while children who coloured outside the lines or chose the “wrong” colour were met with a questioning look. The book was laid open next to the children’s pictures for differences and similarities to the original to be noted. Despite the best intentions, it ended up being a lesson in how not to think for yourself.

The perfect school?

It was these two factors, language and pedagogy, which led me to start researching international schools in Barcelona. I hoped it would be possible to find the perfect balance – a school with a decent level of English and a child-centred approach to teaching, but also one that didn’t feel detached from the community we live in. Eventually we settled on a small private Montessori-style primary school on the outskirts of the city.

What I liked about the school was that the children are encouraged to follow their own curiosity and take responsibility for their own learning. Each has an individual work plan and is helped to allocate time in order to get everything done. Rather than age-based classes, older and younger children work together in small groups, helping and learning from each other with guidance from the teachers.  Everyone is encouraged to use the three languages – Catalan, Spanish and English. Teachers speak one language consistently and children switch depending on who they are working with at the time, just as we all do in real life.

Of course, there were some downsides too: We don’t have a car, and the school is effectively inaccessible by public transport, so we have to rely on the school bus. And like most private schools, there was a hefty admission fee to pay on top of annual tuition which we struggled to scrape together. It felt like a leap of faith and I spent many sleepless nights over the summer wondering if we’d done the right thing.

Upsides and downsides

My daughter did not seem to notice my nerves as she leaped onto the school bus without so much as a backward glance that first September morning. My first impressions of the school were also positive: each family has a two-hour meeting with the head of studies at the beginning of the year to help the school get to know particular needs of each child and plan the year ahead, and regular meetings with the child’s tutor throughout the year. After the rather grudging annual parents meeting at our old school, this felt like a breath of fresh air.

But as we settled into the new routine, the downsides have also come into focus. Most of all I miss the sense of community from the daily interaction with other parents at the school gate – the hurried pick up and drop off from a busy city bus stop is just not the same, and I feel a bit disconnected from what’s happening at school. And while I never thought I’d miss the pointlessly rigid rules and bureaucracy of our old school; the new school organisation sometimes feels unnervingly chaotic.

I think what I’m starting to realise is that there is no such thing as a perfect school. For international families there will always be trade offs in terms of community integration, languages, teaching styles, daily logistics and, of course, affordability. You simply can’t have everything. It’s hard to know for sure yet whether we’ve made the right school choice, but as long as my daughter feels happy, secure and motivated to learn, the chances are she’ll be absolutely fine.

From her point of view, the only stressful moment so far was when we nearly missed the school bus the other morning: “Call them mummy!” she begged: “Tell them to wait!” I think I’ll take her eagerness to get to school as a good sign.

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You can follow Annette’s blog for further information about family life in Barcelona: www.barcelonafamilylife.com


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