Diversity of bilingual programmes

One problem when discussing bilingual programmes is that most people – whether parents, teachers, politicians or journalists – tend to assume that bilingual schools in the different parts of Spain are very similar to one another. When someone says “the great thing about bilingual schools is…” or “bilingual schools don’t work because…” they’re normally expressing an opinion based on their experience in a particular region. However, as there are huge differences between regions, those opinions don’t necessarily apply to schools in other parts of Spain. In this post we’ll present some of the key differences between the bilingual programmes at secondary school level.

Different region, different name

Let’s start with the names. In Madrid, bilingual schools have both a “Sección bilingüe” and a “Programa bilingüe”, in Andalusia it’s just a “Programa bilingüe”, in Castile la Mancha some schools have a “Sección europea” and others have a “Proyecto bilingüe”, and the Catalan programme is called “Generación Plurilingüe”. And then of course there are the British Council schools, which have a “Programa bilingüe” wherever they are in Spain, but that is different from their local region. Confused? It gets worse…

What is actually taught in English, and how much?

Another difference is the non-language subjects (“ANLs”) included in a bilingual programme. Some regions, like Madrid, insist on specific subjects: Geography and History must be taught in English in all four years of ESO, and Biology and Geology must be taught in the first and third years. Maths, meanwhile, is excluded. Other regions, like Andalusia, recommend certain subjects, but allow schools to choose from a selection. And some regions leave it up to each school to decide for itself.

The amount taught in English also varies, with most regions setting a minimum or maximum number of subjects and/or lessons that must be taught in English. In Castile la Mancha, 30-50% of the timetable should be taught in English, including English language lessons. In Castile and León, there should be two or three ANLs, but no more than 50% of the timetable should be in English. In Madrid, a Sección bilingüe should teach at least a third of the timetable in English, but it can be more. The Programa bilingüe, on the other hand, only needs one ANL.

Within each ANL, the proportion that should be taught in English also varies. For example, in Madrid and Castile la Mancha it’s 100%, in Andalusia it’s at least 50% and in Extremadura it’s around a third.

Which students receive a bilingual education?

Andalusia is moving towards a homogeneous model in which all students in each bilingual school follow the same bilingual programme. In Madrid, all students in bilingual schools are taught bilingually, but the ones enrolled in the Sección get more content in English than those in the Programa. In most other regions, only some groups within each bilingual school are taught bilingually. This means that parents and students can choose whether they want to apply to join the bilingual programme. If demand exceeds the number of available places, various criteria are used to select students, including their previous experience of bilingual teaching and language level, as well as a simple lottery.

Differences within regions

Apart from the differences between regions, there are also differences within regions: schools can be “more” or “less” bilingual. For example, in Murcia and Castile la Mancha there are three levels of bilingual schools (known as basic, intermediate and advanced in Murcia and iniciacion, desarollo and excelencia in Castile la Mancha). Murcia is also unique because starting in 2018–19, all schools are bilingual. This is possible because in the basic bilingual programme, only 1 or 2 ANL lessons per week need to be taught in English. Nevertheless, at secondary level, half of Murcian schools follow the advanced programme.

Curriculums and testing

There are often stories in the press about children who have learned the history of England but know nothing about Spanish history. In fact, the vast majority of bilingual schools actually follow the normal Spanish curriculum – they just teach parts of it in English. It is true that a few bilingual schools prepare their students for the international exam IGCSE in some subjects. However, these schools normally cover the Spanish curriculum as well. Obviously, bilingual programmes also provide a great opportunity to discuss different cultures and compare students’ experiences with those of people in other countries.

There are many theories on the best way to test and examine students at bilingual schools. Some bilingual schools set tests in the language that the material was taught in, and expect students to answer in the same language. Some teachers set all of the questions in English, but allow students to choose whether they want to answer in Spanish or English. Students may get a bonus mark for answering well in English. The dilemma here is: how do you motivate students to improve their English, while also allowing brilliant students with poor English skills to demonstrate their understanding of the subject content?

Will the differences diminish?

In this post, we’ve tried to give you an idea of the diversity of the bilingual programmes in Spain. Unfortunately it would take far too much time to explain all of the distinctions in detail. As more evidence becomes available for which system works best, we can only hope that the differences will diminish, as regions move towards “best practice”.

What do you think? Does the bilingual programme work well in your part of Spain, and what changes would you like to see? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


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