In the summer of 1996 – when I was nine years old – my family moved from south London to Spain.
I had been on holiday to Spain once before – a package holiday to Mallorca which my mother had made sure was equal parts kids fun (pirate shows and chips) and exploring the villages on the island, which back then was really more of her idea of a good time.
Just two years later, we moved to Cartagena in the south east of Spain, where my mother was going to teach English as part of the British Council scheme, with about five words of Spanish between the three of us.
Cartagena is a beautiful port city, with an abundance of Roman ruins, but an English family moving there in the mid-90s was a novelty.
Before making the move I'd started reading basic children's books in Spanish. I had also practiced speaking it with a WH Smiths language course – complete with cassettes tapes (this was in a pre-Duolingo age).
I still remember the pride with which I announced to my mother in those early days that I'd already learnt a Spanish word – shouting 'Hola!' with a very hard 'h' at her. This is just to stress how much of a beginner I really was.
So in September I started the local school armed with a digital pocket dictionary and the full confidence of my parents that I would pick up Spanish in no time.
They were not alone in this thinking. Many of our readers move countries with their children and believe that – unlike them – their children will find the challenges of learning a new language relatively stress free.
Of course in many cases this is true, with children generally integrating more quickly because of school, as well as the major advantage of having a mind like a sponge.
While parents are sitting around desperately learning how to conjugate regular verbs, children have often learned those rules without realising it and are off busy having in-depth chats about the new Spice Girls sticker book (at least that's how we did it in 1996).
Nevertheless, on the way to this and other similar displays of linguistic prowess, it was a bit of a bumpy ride.
For one thing, there was a lot of gesturing – something I was lucky my peers seemed more than happy to get involved with – as well as a few months when I didn't have a clue what was going on during lessons.
This was not always a bad thing from a nine-year-old's perspective – I didn't do homework for the first week of school because I didn't know what deberes written on the right-hand side of the board, meant.
There were also some interesting side effects of not being fluent in the language the teachers were using.
Having been very average at maths when I was living in London, suddenly I became a comparative whizz at it because it was so much easier to understand than most lessons for which understanding Spanish was more integral.
I also became very enthusiastic in music lessons for the same reason – although this didn't seem to lead to any real musical ability, unfortunately.
Cartagena, Murcia in 2018
When it came to socialising, there was one particular tradition at my school that was essential to making friends – during breaks and lunchtime, the children in each class would play one big game together, often baseball.
To this day I'm not sure if it's something that is common at Spanish schools, was common then or if I just happened to luck out. One thing I do know though, it was ideal for someone who didn't relish the idea of more hand gesturing but did want to make friends.
As time went on my Spanish improved and I was more than happy to go over to friends' houses for dinner and chat with them and their families over the dinner tables.
By the end of my year in Spain – after a shaky beginning and many tears of frustration – I was fluent.
But living in Spain wasn't just about the ups and downs of learning a new language, everything about it was a great adventure.
I fell in love with the fun of shelling a prawn before eating it – and to this day I don't think a meal is quite as much fun if there isn't a bit of work involved even once it's on the plate – going to the beach and swimming all day, the sunshine – and just a few days of terrible storms – and the people.
I went back to school in the UK when I was nearly 11, around the time most British children start learning a foreign language – at my school it was French.
It was then that I discovered another advantage of learning a foreign language before most of my peers – not only did I find French classes easier than most of my classmates because of being able to speak a relatively similar language but because of my experience learning Spanish I wasn't afraid of sounding strange and instead could focus on discovering another language and culture.
This led to a degree in French, a year abroad in Paris, and yet another British person falling in love with France and moving there.
In Paris, 2018
If I hadn't lived in Spain I might well have stayed in the UK not having the courage or opportunity to live abroad without already knowing it could be done.
I don't think living abroad necessarily means leading a more fulfilled life but that year in Spain expanded my horizons in ways that I will always be grateful for – and not only because of the lasting love of fresh seafood it gave me.
EXPLAINED: How Spain will make it easier for students to graduate
The Spanish government has passed a new decree which will allow secondary and sixth form students to graduate and receive their qualifications, even if they have failed some subjects.
Published: 17 November 2021 12:23 CET
There will also be no re-sitting of exams at Spanish secondary schools. Photo: CESAR MANSO / AFP
The Spanish government approved on Tuesday, November 16th a new Royal Decree which gives instructions to teachers to change the way they grade their students for the rest of the school year of 2021/2022 and 2022/2023.
Education in Spain is compulsory for all those from ages 6 to 16. The Spanish education system is made up of primary and secondary schools. Secondary school is referred to as ESO and students receive a Título de Graduado Educación Secundaria Obligatoria (Title of Graduation from Obligatory Secondary School Education). This is the last four years of compulsory education, up until age 16, and is similar to GCSEs in the UK.
After age 16, Spanish students can go on to study for the optional Bachillerato for the next two years up until age 18. This is equivalent to A-levels in the UK and is needed if the student wants to attend university.
The new rules apply to the ESO and Bachillerato qualifications. In primary education, there were no specific qualifications or failure limits and this is the same in the new decree too.
What is changing?
Before, students studying for the ESO were allowed to pass each year only if they did not have more than three failed subjects, but now with the new decree, there is no limit.
There will also be no re-sitting of exams in ESO.
In order to graduate with the ESO qualification at age 16, students could still graduate even if they had up to two failed subjects, however now there is no limit in the number of failed subjects allowed to graduate.
In order to pass each year of the Bachillerato, students could still move on if they had up to two failed subjects. This will stay the same in the new decree too.
In order to graduate with the Bachillerato qualification before, students had to pass all subjects and exams, but now one failed subject is allowed.
Students will also be able to sit the Selectividad, which are the Spanish university admission tests if they have failed some of their Bachillerato (sixth form) school subjects.
For the first time in history, students with special needs who have had significant curricular adaptations and have not studied the minimum requirement for other students will also be able to receive their high school qualifications.
The text presented to the Council of Ministers by Pilar Alegría, the Spanish Minister of Education states that the decision on whether or not a student passes secondary education will be decided on by each board of the school or institution at the end of the school year.
It is the teaching team “who is given the ultimate responsibility for the decision on the promotion and qualification of students” she stated. It will be the teachers who have to make the decision after assessing whether the student “has reached the appropriate degree of acquisition of the corresponding skills”.
This means that there will no longer be specific requirements to graduate high school and that the parameters for passing will be different for each institution.
Why have the rules changed?
The new measures are designed to avoid students repeating years and improve graduation statistics.
According to the latest statistics, out of the countries in the EU in 2020, 79 percent of the population between 25 and 64 years old had graduated Secondary Education or higher and Spain is around 16.1 points below this average.
Pilar Alegría said that 30 percent of 15-year-old students have repeated a year at least once and “dropout rates are increased by this percentage of students”.
That is why we are committed to a system “based on trust in teachers”, “continuous evaluation” and “collaborative work by teaching teams”. She has assured that “the culture of effort does not run any risk with this new norm. An effort based on motivation is better than one based on punishment”.
Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, Castilla y León and Murcia strongly oppose the new rules because they “lower the requirement” and “unsettle the teachers”.
The five regions complain that the royal decree changes the rules of the game in the middle of the course since the students have started the academic year with a particular curriculum and specific criteria in order to pass it.
“Within our powers, while respecting the law, we are going to try to prevent the royal decree from being applied, as we consider that it is a direct attack on one of the pillars of the Madrid educational system, as is the merit and the effort of the students “, said sources from the Department of Education of the Community of Madrid.
The education authorities in Galicia said that they will also “explore any legal possibility that allows for preserving the culture of effort and quality as signs of identity”.
Castilla y León
The education departments in Castilla y León said that for their part, they “will make sure that the curricular development and the norms of promotion and qualification are the least harmful”.
“Although the norm establishes that the Baccalaureate degree can be obtained with a failed subject, we understand that it does not make sense because all subjects contribute to the acquisition of the necessary competencies,” said the education authorities in Andalusia.
Murcia is also not in favor of the royal decree and denounces “the improvisation of the Pedro Sánchez government and the lack of legal security for the decisions that have been taken”.
Unions and Associations
Teachers’ unions such as Csif or Anpe or associations such as Concapa or Cofapa warn that more students are going to arrive less prepared for the next level of education, where the problem will explode.
These regions argue that this new system will leave a lot of grey areas because teachers’ criteria can be very subjective. The elimination of make-up exams is also causing confusion because “they give another opportunity for students to pass based on their effort and ability”.
The rest of the regions, on the other hand, were in favor of eliminating the need to re-sit exams because they believe that the evaluation should be “continuous” and the student should not risk everything for a single exam.
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