The Monjoia School in Sant Bartolomeu del Grau, near Barcelona, perhaps typifies a very real educational conundrum in Spain today.
There are 117 children in this state-run primary, 54 percent of whom are the children of immigrants. Most are Moroccans or Argentines.
Schools like this are increasingly becoming the norm as the number of immigrants rises. Some 6 percent of Spain’s 42 million population are from another country. If the numbers of foreigners moving to Spain continues to rise at the same pace, by 2015 one in three people will have come from another country.
And schools like Monjoia are not simply places where poor Third World immigrants send their children.
Figures for 2002-03 showed 80 percent of expats sent their children to state schools; only 20 percent opted for the private sector.
Spanish parents, as well as other expats, are concerned that if some immigrant children do not speak Spanish then their children’s progress will be slowed down as teachers have to compensate.
Maria Teresa Feu, director at Monjoia, concedes this happens.
“You have to accept that if a large number of the children do not speak Spanish properly then the children are not going to learn at the same level or the same speed,” she says.
Feu admits it has caused conflicts between the Spanish and Moroccan parents.
“We have been accused of racism on both sides. Some Spanish parents have said we favour Moroccans, while some Moroccans said we treat their children like slaves. We throw ourselves into teaching and treat them all the same.”
Maggie Burke, a British language teacher, and Bruno Sempere, a French-born Catalan, who runs his own ceramics business, have two children.
Megan, aged ten, goes to a state primary school in Barcelona and six-year-old Matt is at a kindergarten.
Burke believes that when there are “too many immigrants” in a class it can cause problems for the children.
And she acknowledges that for some parents it can be frustrating to see their children “hampered” by the language problems caused by other immigrant children.
Burke, 36, says: “For us the public system is just as good as the private and in fact there are better facilities.
“There are immigrants in my daughter’s class—she is one of them—but this does not cause difficulties. There have only ever been two children who could not speak the language properly, a Russian and a Romanian.
“However, when the majority of students are immigrants it can cause a problem.”
She relates a story about a friend whose daughter was held back in her maths class because the teacher wanted to slow down the progress of classes because of language problems.
“My friend was told that her daughter could not go on to learn division because the class had not got that far,” she says
“This was doubly frustrating because my friend is a maths teacher and had to teach her at home to make sure she was not falling behind.”
American-born Mike Younkman, 42, who works in training, and his Spanish wife, Ana Fernandez, 40, a university professor, have three children.
The eldest daughter, Sara, seven, goes to a state school in Barcelona. Their other children, Ariana, four, and seven-month-old Max are too young.
Younkman believes that the number of immigrants can have an important effect on the progress of children in the schools.
“We are going to leave our children in the state schools for the time being as we are happy with the progress that Sara is making. The teaching methods that they use are very good,” he says.
But, from anecdotal evidence, the ratio of immigrants to Spaniards in classes can make a difference to a child’s progress, believes Younkman.
“Sometimes, the number of immigrants in a class can be a factor. My sister-in-law in Madrid has seen that some state primary schools seem like ghettoes, with more immigrant children than Spaniards.”
To integrate children, some schools give lessons about the cultures of some immigrants or feed them food from other countries. They also teach them about Spanish culture.
Feu insists this is not “ghettoisation”.
“We do everything possible to make sure that this doesn’t happen. We are always coming up with new ways to avoid isolation so that the school and the village does not become a ghetto.”