Why is the level of English here in Spain so poor?

In my blog today I’m going to talk about the problem with English learning here in Spain and in the second section, coming soon, about some of the solutions that we are providing that can help English learners, some in our school and some no matter if or where you study.

When Monica and I came out here to Elche, back in 2006, we were fresh from studying our teaching qualifications to be high school teachers in the UK. At that point I knew that the state of the nation’s English was not very good,  (good for us because it meant that people would need our help to reach a decent level of English) but because we had come fresh from our training, where we had learnt to teach with a very communicative methodology along with techniques for using the new interactive whiteboards, I actually thought that the situation would soon improve because I assumed that the teachers here would have received similar training and adopted similar techniques and then the current teachers would also adapt and improve.

8 years later and it’s difficult to see the improvement if there is any. I’m sure there are many great teachers in the schools here and some not so good and I’m not trying to knock teachers here with my comments, but when I hear stories of English teachers in state schools who introduce themselves to the class in Spanish, I know this must be an isolated example, but still!, you have to wonder what the underlying problems might be and what can be done to improve the situation.

Firstly, the classes need to be communicative. All I mean is that all communication in the classroom should be in English wherever possible. Many people here finish school having passed their exams in English but they don’t understand you and can’t respond adequately if you speak to them in English, and I have to emphasise that I’m making a generalisation here, not saying that this is normally the case.

Secondly, the classes need to be at least interesting, and even better, fun. This depends not just on having good material and a well-planned class, but also on the teacher being able to enjoy the classes with the children and show enthusiasm for the subject. This is true for all subjects, not just English of course and it stops the children from losing interest and turning away from their studies.

So maybe part of the problem is that the local authorities are not providing enough support for teachers in terms of training and development, continuous improvement and other measures to improve and maintain the standard of teaching in our schools. I don’t know the exact situation and I may be wrong, but I do know that teachers are now required to reach a B1 or B2 level (and here I’m not talking about English teachers, who would already have that level or better anyway), but they are not being given classes to achieve this but instead are being left to individually find their own way of reaching these levels, so there’s an example… Then some of them are being told to teach their subject in English but a lot of them have great difficulty in doing so, not to mention it causing them a lot of stress by being expected to do something they haven’t been adequately trained for.

An even bigger problem in my view is the way that teachers are recruited. The system here in Spain to gain a highly sought-after position in the public sector is one of competitive entrance exams (oposiciones in Spanish). This sounds like a fine idea because it means that only the most academically qualified teachers gain positions in public schools. We could have a whole debate about the merits and detractors of this system but I just want to raise the point that it means that I, for example, as a UK qualified teacher with many years of English-teaching experience would not be able to apply for or get a job in a state school here. Now, I’m not trying to complain, because personally I never wanted to do that anyway and never even considered going for the ‘oposiciones’, but the case remains that unless I could perform really well in a series of competitive exams in Spanish and Valencian (here in the Valencian community) there is no way for me to work in a state school.

No, the real problem here is that if a school is looking at improving their English teaching and maybe wishes to hire a really good, well-qualified and experienced teacher they are unable to choose from the many candidates worldwide who may wish to relocate to Spain, the many expats who are already out here, or even choose from the most qualified and experienced Spanish teachers. I’m familiar with the UK system, so I’ll tell you how it works there. If a Spanish teacher wishes to work in a UK school they may apply for their qualifications to be recognised so that they gain Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). From a school’s perspective they can advertise their position where they wish and select the best candidates based not only on their qualifications and experience, but also on how they perform at interview and at teaching a demonstration lesson.

It would be great for schools and for kids to have the best available teachers and therefore receive the best classes and education available within the financial constraints. So purely from a language learning perspective and to improve the general situation, the system needs to be changed. I’m not a politician, I normally avoid politics but the truth needs to be said. I recognise that this would be a huge step and that there would be a lot of opposition to this, not least from the teachers who have gained themselves a well-paid job for life, regardless of performance (as far as I’m aware) just by completing their teacher qualification and doing well in some exams at some point.


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