Why is Spain experiencing an English language boom?

Twenty-seven per cent of Spain's population is unemployed - over six million people. In a ferociously competitive job market, Spaniards see learning a foreign language as the best way of distinguishing themselves from others.

Take a trip on Madrid’s Metro during the morning rush hour and you will be struck by two things: the number of suited commuters burying their heads in English language textbooks, and the amount of wall space taken up by private schools, or academias, advertising English courses.

Twenty-seven per cent of the population is unemployed; that’s over six million people. In a ferociously competitive job market, Spaniards see learning a foreign language as the best way of distinguishing themselves from others. While many here struggle to make ends meet, while angry protests against politicians, austerity and banks take place almost daily, English language schools have never had it so good.

Andalusia has been hit very hard by the crisis. With a local unemployment rate of 35.4 per cent, the demand for English lessons is high. Until last July, Pilar, a resident of Seville who studied law at university, worked for a property development company. “I was there for six years, during the construction boom,” she says. “When I started there were 44 of us. Now there are only two.”

Out of work and applying for jobs, she is investing time (three to four hours a day, not counting homework) and money in an intensive English course. In Spain, this can cost upwards of €600 – a large sum if you are unemployed. “My course is demanding, and expensive,” Pilar says. “But I need to differentiate myself from other candidates. If I have a good level of English, I will have more opportunities to get a job.”

Pedro, a 37-year-old father-oftwo, lives in Dos Hermanas, a 20-minute drive from Seville. He lost his job as a construction manager last year and is struggling to find employment. “The last job I went for, 700 other people applied,” he says.

At the beginning of the year Pedro signed up for heavily discounted English classes in Seville, taught by trainee teachers who in turn had paid over £1,000 each to the academy to obtain a teaching qualification. It cost only €20 for a month’s worth of lessons.

His course finished in March, but he is still working hard on his English; still trying, like Pilar, to stand out from the crowd. “At the moment, I’m studying English on my own, using the internet. And every day I’ll watch a programme or a movie in English, with Spanish subtitles. My favourite at the moment is The Big Bang Theory.”

Our conversation soon moves to the problems gripping Spain. “The worst thing is that I can’t see things changing,” he says. “The politicians aren’t doing anything, the unions aren’t doing anything, and people don’t feel things are getting better. Every weekend you meet with your friends and relatives, and eventually you speak about the crisis. Nowadays, nobody has a secure job.”

The English language boom in Spain ensures a healthy profit for the academies. It does not guarantee Pilar and Pedro work. What it does offer, though, is some sort of hope. “Things will change for the better,” Pedro says. “I don’t care how many years it takes me.”

Protesters in May 2013 carry a banner with the latest jobless figure. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.