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Why Spain’s bilingual schools are full of teachers with poor English skills

The sector has grown so quickly there are not enough trained professionals to meet the demand

Bilingüismo
Bilingual school Lope de Vega in Madrid.

María is a 33-year-old geography and history teacher at a public secondary bilingual school in Madrid. It’s not a position she feels comfortable with. “It doesn’t make me anxious, but I don’t think I’m doing a good job,” says María, who did not want to use her real name. “I use irony and humor to get closer to my students and I can’t do this in English because it is not my native language.”

In 2013, after struggling to find work, María decided to get the certificate in advanced English (C1), which is required to teach English in the region of Madrid. It took two years to prepare for the exam and cost her €3,000 in classes. Since then, she has worked full-time as a substitute teacher.

This model segregates students according to their economic possibilities

Biology teacher Javier

The boom in public bilingual centers in Spain has been remarkable. In the 2010-2011 period, 240,154 students were studying in a bilingual program in one of Spain’s regions (except Catalonia, which does not provide data). In the 2016-2017 period, that figure had jumped 360% to 1.1 million, according to an EL PAÍS study of data from the Education Ministry. Some 95% of Spanish students at bilingual schools have chosen to be taught in English.

But experts say there is not enough analysis or objective data on the effect of bilingual learning. They accuse regional governments of using students as a testing ground to meet electoral promises.

“Families are often making misinformed decisions and choose these centers because they are socially prestigious. They set learning expectations that are not realistic,” Rubén Chacón, professor of English language at the National Distance Education University (UNED), said at last week’s Biuned congress, where more than 100 national and international experts discussed the issue of bilingual education.

“Bilingualism is here to stay and teaching professionals must adapt and educate themselves to move forward,” he added.

Regional differences

There are notable differences between bilingual education in each of Spain’s regions, especially when it comes to the English skills required of teachers. In Asturias, where more students study in English than any other region (52.3% in elementary school and 33.7% in high school), teachers only need to have an intermediate level (B2). The same is true in Andalusia, where 30.5% of elementary school students and 28.6% of high school students study in English. In Madrid however, where 43.8% of primary school students and 27.6% of secondary students take classes in English, teachers must have an advanced level of English (C1).

The number of students who were held back a year was higher in non-bilingual schools, according to a report by the Madrid regional government

The popularity of bilingual schools has risen so dramatically that many regions have been unable to keep up with demand. In Andalusia, for instance, “there are not enough teachers qualified to speak well,” says Christian Abello, professor of English studies at the University of Seville. After the bilingual program was launched in 2004, the Andalusian regional government allowed teachers with a low intermediate level of English (B1) to teach classes in the first few years, says José Antonio Romero, coordinator of the bilingual program at the public school Miguel Servert in Seville.

“We began without qualified teachers, and CLIL training – the European methodology to learn a new language through other subjects such as mathematics – is voluntary. The regional government did not supervise the teachers’ progress,” he adds.

Another issue with bilingual schools is how students are divided according to their level of English. In the Madrid region, secondary students must take an exam and are then separated according to their results. Those who perform well receive at least 33% of classes in English and those who do not, receive just one class in the language.

Families often make misinformed decisions and choose these centers because they are socially prestigious

English language professor Rubén Chacón

Sandra, who also did not want to give her real name, is a geography and history substitute teacher at a school in Vicálvaro, a working class area of Madrid. She decided not to give her class in English, arguing it would be an “aberration.” “There is a lot of abstract thinking in my subject and I feel like it would be a betrayal to my students, to those who already struggle in Spanish,” she says. Sandra also believes it is unfair that bilingual schools have more resources, for instance the Global Classrooms program where student compete against other schools in a mock United Nations debate. “They learn a lot [with Global Classrooms] but non-bilingual students are left out,” she says.

“Centers are in a kind of race with one another and this puts pressure on the teaching sector … It’s a social experiment,” says Isabel Galvín, head of education for the Madrid region at the labor union CCOO. During these three months, the union has received 365 queries – 185 (nearly 50%) were related to bilingual teaching in Madrid.

“A common problem is that the substitute who is covering their position is not trained,” says Ana, a technical drawing teacher who did not want to use her real name. This 50-year-old educator was unable to get the C1 certificate and is now being moved from school to school.

Social segregation

But there are teachers who feel comfortable giving classes in English. Javier, a biology and geography substitute teacher, lived for a year in the United States. While he does not have problems with English, he says the system marginalizes students from less privileged backgrounds. “This model segregates students according to their economic possibilities. Those who can pay for after-school tutoring do well, and those who cannot get increasingly worse results,” says Javier.

According to Javier, many families chose bilingual schools for their social standing even if the students have trouble learning: “Students often end up memorizing. Understanding such complex material in English is double the work.”

In Asturias, where more students study in English than any other region, teachers only need to have an intermediate level of English

A report from the Autonomous University of Barcelona found that bilingual schools were creating “selection processes” that deepened social segregation. Students “with more resources” were accepted and those “with more difficulties” were left out, the report concluded. This was most apparent in Madrid, where segregation was comparable to Hungary and Romania, two countries with the highest levels of social division in the European Union.

On the other hand, a report by Madrid regional authorities found that the number of students who were held back a year was higher in non-bilingual schools – 4.5% in primary and 12.5% in secondary school compared to 3.8% and 9% in bilingual centers.

In the 2016-2017 period, Madrid’s regional government invested €36 million in bilingual education – 5% for teacher training and 69% to language assistants, typically university students from English-speaking countries who spend an hour every week talking to each student in the classroom.

In Asturias, students are not divided according to their English proficiency. The regional director of academic planning, Francisco Laviana, says “our objective is not for them to speak like it was their native language, but to master it. The role of the teacher has changed. Now they are not just an expert in their field, they also have to feel comfortable with technology and languages.” He adds, “It’s a work opportunity for teachers and an unstoppable trend.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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