Vickie Scullard takes a look at Madrid’s flagship bilingual programme, 15 years after the idea was first mooted as a way of improving the English language level in the region.
On paper, the bilingual programme is an attractive addition to the Spanish education system.
For Spanish students who want to travel the world, work for international companies, or who simply love languages, speaking English proficiently can only be seen as an advantage.
But fast forward to today and it appears that the system has not quite lived up to the rather high expectations it promised when it was introduced into the public school system.
The country’s first bilingual programme, back in 1996, saw a collaboration between Spain’s Ministry of Education and the British Council.
The goal, according to the British Council website, was “to provide wider access to a bilingual and bicultural education for children across Spain.”
Based on the education offered by the British Council School in Madrid, the programme now reaches 40,000 students in 90 infant-primary schools and 57 secondary schools in 10 autonomous regions.
By the turn of the millennium, regional governments began to launch their own bilingual programs.
Here in Madrid it was implemented in the academic year 2004/2005. According to the Comunidad de Madrid website, in the current school period there are 369 bilingual public schools and 152 bilingual secondary schools in English-Spanish.
The figures say the system as a whole is working – according to the English First English Proficiency Index, Spain ranks at number 33 out of 112 countries (moderate proficiency) from 24th out of 44 (low proficiency) in 2011.
The criticism perhaps lies when you dig a little deeper – in Europe, Spain is 25th out of 35.
It was, and still is, a groundbreaking idea – but the reality is, according to many people working on the front line, the programme is still suffering from teething problems.
According to a July 2021 report by El Pais, almost 90 primary and secondary schools are no longer teaching courses in English because, “they say students learn neither the language nor the subject matter properly”.
This is perhaps not helped by the difference in English level that teachers have across the country. Here in Madrid, teachers need a C1 advanced level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). But in Andalusia, an upper intermediate B2 is sufficient.
Criticism of the programme has filtered down to a grassroots level – more recently in November of this year a protest was advertised in Madrid city centre against the system, urging people to “paremos el bilingüe” (let’s stop bilingual).
So changes may have to be made to retain the interest of both the public, and schools themselves to deter more schools from opting out.
The Madrid Metropolitan spoke to teachers and language assistants to get to the bottom of the realities of the classroom, and work out whether there is a way forward for bilingual education in Spain.
One native English teacher, 38, works at a concertado (semi-private) school, said that while she believes the overall level of English in Spanish schools is much higher than it was 15 years ago, the main flaw with it is that the programme did not sell realistic expectations.
She said: “I have personally noticed a huge difference in the English level. Students understand a lot more and they are not put off or frightened by it as they might have been in the past.
“Ten or fifteen years ago they would have freaked out when I spoke to them in English or just stared at me. But now they have become used to hearing and having to respond to questions in English.
“In my experience, in the area of English language level and acceptance, the programme is working. However, the reality is that students do not leave school bilingual. We need maybe a better term for it, such as dual language, so it doesn’t over promise.”
The teacher, from America, also adds that the way the programme was essentially dumped onto teachers’ laps, led to some resistance.
“I know other teachers who have been around since before the bilingual system was put in place who were told they had to teach their subject in English,” she explained.
“Some schools that have been around for more than 50 years were told that their staff all had to become bilingual in two years. Because of this there are some schools that are bilingual in name only – by this I mean they are part of the system and the teachers have their C1 certificate, but in reality they teach most of the lessons in Spanish and not in the target language.
“Then the children are expected to do the projects in English but are given the instructions in Spanish, which is confusing for some.”
Hand-in-hand with the bilingual system was the implementation of native teaching assistants in the classes that are taught in English.
The auxiliar de conversación programme is offered to native and native level English speakers from around the world – many of whom are from the US and the UK – in return for a student visa.
This allows them to live, study and work at the school that they are assigned to for the duration of the academic year in return for a monthly stipend.
As well as the Ministry’s own programme, others such as BEDA and UCETAM are popular alternatives and have different requirements.
Whichever route the assistants take, the experience they have, and how much they take part in the lessons, is very much dependent on the school and the teachers they work with.
The same teacher, who came to Spain as part of the auxiliar programme in 2007, explained: “From my experience, it is a mixed bag. If it’s a rough class for example, the aux might not have a chance to get involved in teaching at all.
“When I was an aux, one teacher, whose level of English was low, had me sit in the corner of the room and made it clear she did not want me to intervene in her class.
“She was offended if I dared to say anything, so I decided only to intervene when she asked. After a couple of weeks I realised that I had said nothing to the students during that time. I went to my coordinator who was reluctant to get involved, so nothing was done.”
She continued: “Other teachers just don’t know what to do with assistants, and then there are the assistants that just don’t want to be there, and don’t take it seriously. Training definitely needs to be given to teachers and auxes, so there’s a common expectation from both sides.”
Another auxiliar, 37, who has worked for the Ministry, BEDA and a concertado, believes that while the implementation of the system itself is more or less the same, he adds that it is a postcode lottery as to whether students benefit from the bilingual system.
He said: “I used to work in Vallecas and it was a really tough school. The teachers struggled to maintain the classes speaking in Spanish – never mind trying to do so in English.
“I wonder how beneficial the system is for children from more working class backgrounds as it is for those who have the opportunity to study and work in English-speaking countries? Not all schools have the same resources.
“I definitely think that the bilingual system has helped children with their English but I think it is mainly for the benefit of the students that want to move abroad to work in the future. So that raises the question as to how the system is beneficial to the Spanish economy.”
Research in 2015 conducted by Molly M Robbins explains that English fluency, “has a large impact on economic welfare” in Spain, the most significant being tourism.
The thesis, entitled ‘What is the “Economic Value” of learning English in Spain?’ concludes that travel and tourism directly contributes to 5.7 percent of Spain’s GDP and its total contribution is 15.7 percent.
It goes on to reveal that this sector of the economy contributes to 15.8 percent of Spain’s total employment, which includes jobs that are either directly or indirectly supported by tourism.
It adds: “With almost 20 million tourists visiting from the UK and the US alone, the ability to communicate in English is a vital resource to conduct business.”
Great news for the bilingual system.
However, a mum-of-three, who also works as an auxiliar, thinks that the amount of subjects taught in English need to be reconsidered.
She said: “For me, bilingual classes should not include subjects such as science and history. What sense is there to teach Spanish history in English?
“One fault is that you have a bilingual system in place in ESO but then in Bachillerato it switches back to them being taught in Spanish.
“Those students that have been doing physics and chemistry in English, they have to learn it in Spanish.”
The mum, originally from England, explained why she decided against putting her own children through the bilingual system, and how it fails those with additional learning needs.
“I remember when the bilingual programme started,” she said. “So much was promised. But in the end my children did not go to a bilingual school. In my opinion the level was not good enough. The two schools in my area that are in the bilingual system did not seem to have a high enough level. But there are other schools that do have it.
“There has been a noticeable improvement in Madrid – the level here has definitely improved overall. But all schools need to offer a similar level.
“I also don’t think it takes into account the children that have difficulties. Some have problems in classes using their native language, so to add an extra hurdle is unfair.”
Another teacher named Casey told us via Facebook that another problem stems from the fact it is almost impossible for native English teachers to enter the public system.
This is due to the oposiciones exam, which all teachers must pass to work in state schools.
She said: “The bilingual system is a good idea but it is poorly executed. The competitive examination system for public positions means that many well qualified native teachers cannot enter.
“If they want to get their bilingual programme off the ground, they need to help qualified teachers from foreign countries get through oposiciones. Plenty of us speak Spanish well enough to take the exam, but unless you have someone in the system to help you, it’s very hard.”
Casey also explained how many natives who come to Spain struggle to get their foreign degrees validated, which leads to extra hurdles.
“Points need to be given for foreign work experience and degrees,” she explained. “They did not validate my language and culture degree because the program does not exist here.
“Spain needs to make a fast track to validate the teaching credentials from abroad and they need to broaden their ideas to understand that not every country has the same teaching program – but it doesn’t mean we’re less qualified.
“If they want quality, native speaking teachers in the public system, these changes need to happen.”
Going back to the programme itself, another British auxiliar, who gave their name as Jo, said that if some fundamental tweaks were made, it “has potential to be the groundbreaking system it set out to be.”
She added: “I think that as the years go on and new teachers come through – who themselves went through the bilingual system at school – it will be ‘normalised’ and accepted from all sides. If the parents and the teachers see learning English as valid, then hopefully so will the students.”