The south of Spain’s international nature is reflected across all generations, and especially among children and young people who are growing up surrounded by different nationalities, languages and cultures.
Families looking for a private education for their children are privileged in the choice of international schools located along the length of coastline from Almuñécar to Gibraltar.
March is an important month for schools, as it’s time for parents to make a choice and apply for places.
SUR in English chose this week, therefore, to welcome representatives from seven schools and colleges, to take part in two virtual roundtable events under the general theme - International education on the Costa del Sol: present and future.
The challenge of Covid
Activity in all schools over the last year has been governed by the Covid-19 pandemic, making this the inevitable first topic of conversation. All the participants explained how their centres had coped with the lockdown situation and the return to face-to-face teaching.
Krystle Robba, registrar at the University of Gibraltar, which was founded in 2015, coincided with the other centres in explaining that the university already had a “virtual learning environment”, so students were already used to the technology.
Even with a school with 800 students aged between three and 18, Rob Maldonado, head teacher at Swans International School in Marbella, said that thanks to a project that started seven years ago, practically every student was already equipped with a device to be able to start online classes immediately.
“We didn’t change our timetables in any way,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how when people are forced into a situation they just jump on board with it.”
James Riley, co-director of Phoenix College, a sixth-form college in the centre of Malaga city, pointed out that as they had started out as an online school and so they moved “seamlessly” from teaching in person to online.
He added that their smaller classes - the maximum at Phoenix is currently eight - made the process easier.
Once back in the classroom, added James, the pandemic crisis has left its mark: “Crises bring about changes and change comes rapidly. We saw that the crisis accelerated our teaching and the use of technology in the classroom.”
When it came to teaching again in the classroom in Gibraltar, Krystle said that distancing was made easier due to the small number of students in the classes at the University of Gibraltar - a maximum of 20.
“Face-to-face is what students have paid for, is what students prefer, participation in the classroom is very important,” she said, “so we have tried to keep that as much as possible.”
Rob Maldonado of Swans agreed that while the online teaching went well during lockdown, “no-one really wants to go back to that”.
Student welfare was an important issue for all the participants in the two roundtable events. Rob Maldonado of Swans International School stressed the vital role the online classes played. “School gave families structure and support,” he said.
Pancho Campo, Business Development Director at Marbella’s American College in Spain, explained that the students and staff were prepared for the lockdown having the technology in place to carry on the same classes as they have face to face but virtually. “We even incorporated a face recognition software so the kids could sit their exams,” he said.
“Once the restrictions were lifted we started to go the extra mile to protect our kids and our faculty from the possibility of infection,” he added.
A learning process
Amanda Hughes, principal of Laude San Pedro International School, explained that as part of the International Schools Partnership they were constantly in touch with sister schools around the world and “learning from each other”.
“We say to the children, there’s no failure, only learning, and we constantly want to make things better,” added Amanda.
The Laude principal also stressed the role the school played in the welfare of its pupils during the lockdown stage.
“As we grew through this lockdown experience we were very focused on the children’s and staff’s welfare,” she said, adding that a well-being section on the school’s website gave access to psychologists and other help.
In the case of the Marbella International University Centre (MIUC), CEO Mirjana Stefanovic said that in their case the online learning platform had been integrated in their learning programme for some time, so they were prepared technologically for the lockdown.
“Being a personalised student attention institution, we already had a robust system working for the wellbeing of the students,” she said.
Mirjana pointed out that as many of her students come from other countries around the world, the school was involved in making special travel arrangements where necessary and keeping the students’ spirits up with online social events.
Mano Soler, Director of Operations and Student Services at Les Roches Hospitality School, said that with more than 800 students on campus from 90 different countries around the world, the logistics of the lockdown were complicated. “We managed to send back 500 students to their home countries and, being a fully catered college, we had to get meals to the 300 students spread out over Marbella,” he said, as examples of some of the problems. “One of the most important things was understanding what our industry, the hospitality industry, was going through.
“Being a hospitality school face-to-face is essential to us and mental wellbing was an absolute priority for us. We had counselling and mindfulness, among other things,” he added.
Technology for the 21st century
Children of today are being trained for the careers of the future in which technology will play an important role. Amanda of Laude San Pedro explained how the school was preparing for their future careers and to be the “forerunners” when it comes to new technology.
“We want to give them the skills to be creative and think outside the box,” she said, adding that it was not just a case of explaining how things work, but helping them think about what they can do with them. “Our children are not frightened of technology and it’s our job to give them the opportunities to exploit it.”
Mirjana, of MIUC said that they had been introducing artificial intelligence and big data among other aspects into the curriculum and implementing it over the last five years, but also trying to maintain the balance with other subjects such as humanities.
The right balance
The participants in both round tables agreed that new technology means that “digital is here to stay” as Mano of Les Roches pointed out, but that a hybrid of physical and digital is absolutely necessary in both education and the working world.
James Riley of Phoenix College also referred to this mixture of teaching online and in person, or “blended learning” as a formula that has been accelerated by Covid but is now here to stay.
“The leader of tomorrow maybe does not need to know how to create technology, but has to understand how technology can best serve a purpose,” said Mano, giving the example in the case of the hospitality industry of improving guest experience. He added that they also had to teach the students to be ready to be leaders in this current environment.
With regard to the issue of technology, Mirjana Stefanovic of the MIUC said: “The world we are living in is ever changing but let’s not forget the human aspect. It is important to learn how to manipulate technology, but please read the books, read the poetry, socialise, enjoy the experience of studying.”
A unique international experience
With residents from dozens of different countries, the Costa delSol and Gibraltar constitute one of the most international parts of Europe. All seven schools and colleges taking part in these roundtable events have students of a variety of different nationalities, speaking several languages and most importantly with their minds open in terms of where they will study or work in the future.
Mirjana Stefanovic of the MIUC explained that the college was not just about learning but also about the experience of living with people of different cultures, religions and mentalities, gaining a special skill that is different to learn in the classroom. “Here with so many international residents, we are uniquely positioned to offer that opportunity” she said.
“We all have these children who have the most incredible gift for languages,” said Amanda Hughes of Laude San Pedro, referring to all of her fellow participants.
“Our expectation is that our students will be working globally and we have to prepare them for that,” she said. “It’s a gift to see they have no barrier to learning and no barrier to where they will be able to study”.
Pancho Campo of The American College explained that while the Marbella centre offers the first two years of a degree that is then completed with two years in a US university, the pandemic meant that more students were staying in Marbella.
In terms of the international atmosphere, Mano Soler of Les Roches said that as well as having students of 90 different nationalities, the school has campuses in Marbella, Switzerland and China and students can transfer.
“I believe Marbella and Malaga a is a great place for international education, not only having great universities, but also having this international lifestyle around,” he said.
He added that in April Les Roches has its second virtual careers fair with more than 200 companies from around the world participating, recruiting students for jobs around the world.
Krystle Robba stressed that at the University of Gibraltar all of the programmes are industry based. The language centre helps international students with their English.
James Riley of Phoenix College said that having both English and Spanish set students up for a global world. He added that the way the A Levels are taught develops critical thinking, which will help them understand the changing world.
He agreed that the Costa del Sol is like a “global village”. “Students look at the world very differently from the way people saw it 50 or 60 years ago,” he added.
Rob Maldonado of Swans International School also stressed the “head start” children on the Costa del Sol have in terms of speaking languages, living in the international community.
He added that the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme offered at Swans also prepared students for the global market by taking them out of their comfort zones and that they often feel “ahead of the game” when they get to university.
Pancho Campo of The American College stressed the importance of the education opportunities on offer in Marbella and the Costa del Sol, from schools to universities.
“Marbella has a great quality of education, but that needs promoting,” he said. “They say, education doesn’t change the world but education shapes the people who will change the world,” he added.
One of the issues affecting international schools and colleges on the Costa del Sol is Brexit, especially the schools teaching the British system.
James Riley of Phoenix College Malaga pointed out that the college offers British A Levels and helps students access universities in the UK and around the world, but that they can also access universities in Spain.
Last year half of the students at Phoenix went to British universities. This year applicants have been put off due to the costs for international students and are looking at other universities in the EU that teach in English, such as in Amsterdam or Utrecht.
“Hopefully it’s something that the British government and British universities will look at and make changes to make them more favourable for EU students,” said James.
Rob Maldonado said that Swans School, was experiencing the same trend this year; students are applying to universities in Holland or Germany.
“There certainly needs to be a change somewhere,” said the head teacher, adding that some smaller universities in the UK might have trouble sustaining themselves.
Laude San Pedro also teaches the British curriculum and principal Amanda Hughes pointed out that British schools have been in Spain for a long time.
“What was clear [from the recent British schools in Spain conference] is that the Spanish Ministry of Education and schools in Spain and the British authorities want to keep the strong links we have between schools and universities in Spain and schools and universities in the UK and globally,” said Amanda.