The Guardian/September 20, 2003
It is the end of a hard slog of a summer. The holidays started on June 20 and ended on Monday. That is 12 weeks, or nigh on a quarter of the year. Try organising your life around that, especially when the Madrid oven is turned up to maximum and temperatures outside are going over 40C (104F) .
On Monday the kids may have looked a bit glum, but the parents were giving high fives. A Madrid child’s life, you might think, is golden. There are hours of freedom, of loving parental attention and family cosiness.
But there is a more worrying cost. Spanish children spend, at least in secondary education, 559 hours a year at school. The EU average is 678 hours. Doing the maths, I discover that my kids will have had a full year less of education by the time they reach 18 than the average European child. They will, according to one study, have had two years less than German, Belgian, Scottish or Dutch kids.
My kids are at a mega-school. Fourteen hundred pupils are spread over two buildings. Entry is at three and exit is at 18 (or later if, as Spanish kids sometimes do, you are made to repeat a year). They go in unable to wipe their own bums and come out, if those lounging on the benches along Paseo John Lennon are typical, as expert joint rollers.
It is also a concertado school, roughly equivalent to a grant-maintained grammar, owned by a progressive charity, funded by the state and topped up with cash from the parents. The majority of concertados are run by religious communities. Ours, however, is a radically secular school. Children at the religious schools have to say their prayers. Ours have obligatory anti-war demonstrations.
The concertado system is either a good way for the state to control private – especially religious – schools or a tax-funded cop-out for middle-class parents who do not trust the state system.
It is not without its risks, as the parents of the Virgen del Bosque school on the outskirts of Madrid discovered this week. Four days after the start of term they found they had a new headteacher who informed them the teachers’ cooperative which owned the school had sold out.
The buyers were the Legionaries of Christ, a radical, Mexico-based Catholic group that makes the fearsomely conservative Opus Dei, another accumulator of Madrid schools, look wet.
The liberal, secular charter is to be rewritten. “Hopefully the boys and girls who study with us will end up marrying because that would mean there would be fewer divorces and separations,” the head declared.
The parents are outraged. But have they started withdrawing their children? No. It is too late to start looking for a school place now. But, I suspect, another emotion is at play. By the time the holidays are over Madrid parents have gone slightly mad. They no longer care whether their headteacher is a self-proclaimed servant of God, or has a trident and horns.