Teacher's Tales

The Catalonia School System

One of the big adjustments to teaching English in Barcelona has been understanding the school system in Catalonia. Pro tip: it resembles little to the system in the United States and my home state of California.

In Catalonia there are three types of schools: private schools, state schools, and semi-subsidized schools.

  • Private schools are privately funded and paid by the parents of the students.
  • State schools are publicly funded by taxes and make up about 60 percent of the schools in Catalonia.
  • Semi-subsidized schools are partially funded with public money, usually paying the teachers’ salaries. Salaries for other employees, school maintenance, and other costs are covered by voluntary payments from the students’ families.

Voluntary payments? Yes, it is a strange concept to capitalist America.

I work at a semi-subsidized school organization call the Fundació Escola Cristiana de Catalunya (The Catalan Christian Schools Foundation). It’s comprised of over 400 schools with 17,000 instructors teaching about 250,000 students. Although religion is present in the curriculum of the school as an academic subject, admission is not restricted to Christians nor is religious practice compulsory. The nuns live next door to the school; I’ve sat with them at lunch, and they are very nice and funny, even if they cannot pronounce my name to save their lives.

The first principle difference between education in California and Catalonia is that compulsory education begins at three years old. It was strange to see such tiny tots wandering wide-eyed through the hallways, but they are positively adorable, even though some of them are still working on how to use the toilet and such. This period of education goes from three to six years old and is called the segon cicle d’educació infantil (second cycle of infant school). Second cycle? You mean they go to school at an even younger age? Yes, but it is not compulsory; nursery school is privatized from six months to three years old.

The second cycle of infant school has three levels: P3, P4, and P5, where students are ages 3-4, 4-5, and 5-6 years old respectively. Not all schools have infant school, so students sometimes have to switch schools after they finish infant school in order to continue onto primary school

Educació primària (primary school) has six grades and educates students from six to twelve years old. These six grades are divided into three cycles: cicle inicial, cicle mitjà, and cicle superior.

  • The cicle inicial (lower cycle) contains first and second primary (often abbreviated 1r PRI and 2n PRI) and has students ages 6-7 and 7-8.
  • The cicle mitjà (middle cycle) contains 3r PRI and 4t PRI with students ages 8-9 and 9-10.
  • The cicle superior (superior cycle) contains 5e PRI and 6e PRI with students ages 10-11 and 11-12.

Primary education is compulsory. After completing primary school, students begin educació secundària obligatòria (obligatory secondary school, abbreviated as “ESO”). Secondary school has four grades: 1r ESO, 2n ESO, 3r ESO, 4t ESO. Students span from ages 12 to 16; it is a time for students to develop their skills and decide what they want to do later in their lives as a career.

After compulsory education at 16 years old, students have five options.

  • Working
  • PQPI: Programa de Qualificació Professional Inicial (Initial Occupational Qualification Program) offers students who have failed ESO a chance to get a diploma so that they can work some specific jobs or continue onto occupational training.
  • Formació Professional: Occupational training
  • Batxillerat: This higher education has three tracks: art, science and technology, and humanities and social sciences. After completing two years of batxillerat, students can take a general exam called “selectivitat” for access into university. The batxillerat education is very demanding and requires many hours of intense studying.
  • “Ni Nis”: ni estudia ni trabaja (not working nor studying), an unfortunately popular option in a time when it is expensive to study, difficult to find work, and easy to continue living at home with mamá and papá

This system has many benefits—children adapt to school life more quickly and have a longer formation—but the system also presents challenges and negative side effects.

One of the major downfalls of the system is that after completing ESO, 26 percent of students abandon their education. This statistic is greatly frowned upon, which has led to attempts to reform the school system…which hasn’t exactly worked either. (See later post on the school strike!) With the current economic crisis in Spain, the national unemployment rate is about 25 percent; while this statistic is grim, it is hardly proportional to the nearly 50 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are unemployed. This means that 140,000 young people don’t work or study. These people are called “ni-nis” after the Spanish phrase ni estudia ni trabaja (not working nor studying).

Another interesting difference between the Californian school system and the Catalonia system is that each level of school is divided into a few classes that are categorized by a letter, usually A, B, or C. But this level is not just an organizational marker; the best students are in group A, the next best in group B, and the worst students are in group C. There are very clearly “smart classes” and “dumb classes” and the students know exactly where they stand, as early as from three years old. While this system is helpful to teachers because they can better teach to the level that their students are at, I wonder if students are being psychologically held back because they are in the “dumb class.” I suppose I have not been here long enough to be a fair judge.

Class for ESO and batxillerat begins at 8 while primària begins at 9. Most classes last about an hour. Students have a core teacher and then specialized teachers for different subjects, like English or religion. The teachers go to the students, contrary to the American system where teachers have their own classroom and students switch classes to learn different subjects.

A school day is long—often lasting until 5 pm—but the students receive a two hour break for lunch from about 1to 3 pm. Because lunch is the principle meal in Spain, it is common that many students return home for lunch or eat lunch with their grandparents if their parents are at work. Still other students eat in the cafeteria at school. After students complete primary education, they often have two or three afternoons a week off where they do not have to go back to school after lunch; this is done with the expectation in mind that students will have to study more on their own. For most teachers, however, this makes for a long day.

I currently work with a broad range of students: 1r PRI, 2n PRI, 4 PRI, all levels of ESO, and both levels of batxillerat (often abbreviated BTX). One hour I work with six-year-olds and the next hour I can be with eighteen-year-olds. Such variation makes for a dynamic day, but it does mean that I must consider age and language abilities when deciding on activities.

Although my schedule has been changed multiple times in the past few weeks, it looks as though I will be able to settle in quite soon. The teachers and students are very excited to have a native speaker in the room because none of their teachers are native speakers of English. I am at the school to help the English levels of both the students and their teachers.

schoolMy school, Col∙legi Jesús Maria Sant Andreu, is situated on a busy street in Barcelona city. On the street level of the school are the infant school classrooms, which all have adorable animal names. On this floor are also the computer lab, copy room, and coffee room for the teachers. There is a floor below which has a few large rooms for gym use and an auditorium, as well as a cafeteria. This floor opens to an outdoor patio where the children play at recess and during lunch. Because the school is in the heart of the city, there is miniscule space compared to the grassy fields of my elementary school in California, but Jesús Maria Sant Andreu considers itself quite lucky to have its patio. The floor above the ground level contains the primary school classrooms; the next floor has ESO classrooms, and the floor above that has batxillerat classrooms. Needless to say, climbing stairs has become a principle part of my daily exercise.

Every week or two I will update with the happenings of the school. This is my fifth week teaching and there is so much to tell! The drama! The tears! The frustration! The joy! The much needed wine served in the teachers’ cafeteria! Fine, there were no tears. But there was wine, a definite benefit to the Catalonia school system.

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