Until recently, whenever the subject of bilingual schools came up in discussion my contribution had always been one of wholehearted support. What better way to improve the English language level of Spanish children than to teach a large chunk of the curriculum in the language and bring native English speaking teaching assistants into the classroom? Spaniards have for a long time felt their foreign language skills lagged behind their European partners and the standard justification for this is normally to blame the education system: too much learning grammatical structures by rote with no practical application and taught by non-natives who wouldn’t survive five minutes actually speaking the language.
The Comunidad de Madrid’s bilingual schools programme has been with us some six years now, growing steadily every year to extend to well over 340 primary and secondary schools. As far as improving the level of English among Madrid’s school children, I would say it has been an undoubted success. What is not so clear is if this is not being achieved at a significant cost in other areas.
A couple of things have come to light recently that have made me question my previously unerring support.
My eight-year-old son attends a a local bilingual primary school and I admit I’m impressed by the level of his classmates’ English. As with all state primary schools in Madrid they give him what appears to me to be a ridiculous amount of homework, obliging him to drag to school a kind of hand luggage trolley bag full of textbooks every morning. Given the amount of homework he has I’ve taken to “helping” him with it – like most parents (I hope!). I’m probably a slow learner, but only this involvement in his homework has made me start to think about the potential pitfalls of teaching such fundamentally important subjects such as science in a foreign language and to boot, by teachers who are not fluent in that in that language.
It was when the homework touched on the subject of reproduction, albeit at a very rudimentary level, that I began to think maybe they should be learning this in Spanish first. For my son, like the other children in his class, English is his second language. For much of the new vocabulary he has to use in his studies he does not yet know the Spanish equivalent.
As the director of a language school in Madrid I have interviewed many potential students for English language courses over the last few years. Of late, many of those potential students have been primary and secondary school teachers who have to improve their level of English and achieve some official certification of that level, if they want to hold onto their job. If they want to work in a bilingual school where their subject is taught in English they have no other option.
Although I’m a great believer in our school’s ability to teach the language, for many of these teachers the period of time they have to achieve the required level is at best unrealistic, at worst downright unfair.
Teachers will need a B2 or C1 level certificate, depending on what age group they are to teach. The worrying thing is that while many existing teachers are a long way from achieving these levels it is questionable whether they are a sufficient level to teach subjects such as science or geography in English.
Many people will reply that there are inevitable teething problems with such an ambitious project and that in time, as the overall level of the population improves, these will be ironed out.
Maybe so. But there is an alternative. As so many Spaniards know, there was a real problem with the quality of English language teaching up until very recently and something surely needed to be done. This “something” could be a curriculum accredited by a recognised organisation such as the British Council, offering at least six hours of high quality English language teaching a week, taught by qualified native teachers. Less ambitious, high profile and vote-worthy but achieving as good results without as high financial and human cost. Unfortunately, as with so many political solutions to practical problems, it’s not so much a solution as just another problem.