Spain: Escuela de Hosteleria

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Escuela de Hosteleria Y Turismo (School of Hospitality and Tourism) in Alcala de Henares, Spain

Jim Playfoot gets a tour of the Escuela de Hosteleria Y Turismo (School of Hospitality and Tourism) in Alcala de Henares, Spain, and finds out how staff and students, working together, are leading the fight against the economic crisis and, in so doing, showing how a small vocational school can be a model for modern learning

The Escuela de Hosteleria Y Turismo lies on the outskirts of Alcala de Henares, 30 minutes from Spain's capital. It is one of eight similar schools in the region offering students vocational courses in tourism and hospitality, traditionally amongst the strongest sectors in the Spanish economy, and has a teaching faculty of around twenty-five working with around two hundred and fifty students. During my visit, I meet with some of those students, with teachers and with the director, Juan Carlos del Mazo, and I discover a modern, innovative educational institution driven by a strong ethos but also having to deal with the realities of a deep and damaging economic crisis.

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Practice makes perfect

On arriving, the first thing that strikes you about the school is the quality of the facilities. Over recent years, the Community of Madrid - the administrators of the school - have invested significantly in vocational infrastructure and this is in evidence here. As Layla, a student on a one year tourism course, shows me round, it's clear the focus is predominantly on giving the students practical experience rather than classroom-based study. There are two working restaurants integrated into the school, both with fully functioning professional kitchens. There's also a mocked-up hotel room complete with accompanying laundry facilities. It's lunchtime and most of the students seem to be hard at work in the larger of the two professional kitchens. One group ispresided over with great enthusiasm by Sergio Laguarda, one of the principle cookery professors. As we talk later, he emphasises the importance of this practical element:

"It's probably about 60 or 70% practical study, with 30 or 40% based in the classroom."

Eduardo, a trainee chef under Sergio's tutelage, backs this up:

"Today, I've got four hours in the kitchen and two hours in the classroom. I think this is why I like this school: it's better to know how to do a job if you want to get employed."

It turns out that Eduardo has already experienced university and is now acutely aware of the value of a more vocational choice:
"In university, they don't show me the way to work. Here I see every day the way to work in tourism. It's similar in here to outside not like university."

A continuing theme of our discussion is the challenges young people are now facing in the job market. Awareness of what employers are looking for is clearly in evidence here, even amongst the younger students - they know that a vocational education gives them a better chance because they will quickly be able to integrate into the workforce due to the practical experiences they have accumulated.

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Ethos is everything

The connection to the 'real world' of work underpins the ethos here. One of the most striking things about the school is the way that the dynamic between staff and students is more akin to a business rather than an educational institution. Juan Carlos, the director of the school, explains how he tries to foster and encourage a closeness and openness between teachers and students, treating everyone on an equal footing and paying less attention than is usual to hierarchy and seniority. You can see this in the way students interact with teachers, and with Juan Carlos himself. This, in part, connects to a broader philosophy that drives the school forward. Juan Carlos explains:

"We are young. Ethos comes with age. We demand from the students two things: responsibility and effort. For that we try to offer examples every single second. Communication, close but not too familiar, helps us to understand and connect to students. We try to makes teachers believe that they teach and they learn at the same time."

The sense of responsibility is key. Juan Carlos stresses that the students coming to the school are voluntary: they are there because they want to be there and no-one is stopping them from leaving. The teaching staff makes this clear to students very early on, setting clear expectations and boundaries. As a consequence, drop-out rates are very low (around 5%). Juan Carlos believes that this kind of approach - to be open, honest and collaborative - brings the best out of the students and the teaching staff:

"There's no need to treat students, teachers and directors differently. That's the way we try to work - try to join efforts and strengths"

Tourism student Layla agrees with this, suggesting that "the best thing about the teachers is that they trust us". Trainee-chef Eduardo agrees and adds that "the teachers here are all passionate about what they teach". This passion clearly transmits itself to the students. Hospitality student Pablo concludes "the teachers are a team and they are all committed". Implicit in these comments is the sense that a more academically-focussed education doesn't always bring with it the same level of commitment, passion and engagement from the teaching staff.

Despite the fact that Juan Carlos, as the director of the school, is not able to select his own staff (he is 'sent' staff from the central administration) and in spite of a relatively high turnover of faculty (around 50% move on each year), he has managed to assemble a highly skilled and motivated team and to create an ethos for those joining that demonstrates to students not only how to behave but also the value of teamwork, of taking responsibility and of commitment to the task. Even more telling is the point about the school - and the staff - learning and developing along with the students. The notion of a 'learning institution' is powerful and something that everyone who walks through the door can believe in and be a part of.

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Fighting the economic tide

During our discussion, there is a huge amount of positivity from both students and staff. The sense that they are all working together, and that they are progressive and relevant to the world beyond the school gate is clear. However, there is also an acknowledgement, and much talk, of the struggles that lie ahead, particularly for graduating students. The global economic crisis has had significant impact in most developed countries but Spain has been hit particularly hard. Headline unemployment is currently running at around 20% - one of the highest rates in Europe - but the rate amongst 18-24 year olds is, by some estimates, over double that. Competition for jobs is fierce and, as a consequence, the quality of jobs available, particularly to new recruits, is often very poor. Hospitality student Pablo puts it like this:

"There's no investment currently from employers in future workers because of the crisis. It's very short term."

Cesar Gil, another of the professors, sympathises with his students saying that while there are jobs, they are "not good jobs". Often, new recruits are expected to work very long hours, have no permanent contracts and are not supported or nurtured.

A further issue facing the school is that much of their success is built around a positive and progressive relationship with the business community. Although this remains, the economic crisis impacts negatively in a number of ways. First, the work placements that are a core part of every student's educational experience rely on the full and enthusiastic engagement of local businesses. Even though participating companies do get paid to take part, they are less willing to get involved, to take students on and to work proactively with them if their own core business is suffering or under threat. Add to that the fact that the hospitality and tourism sector has been hit particularly hard in Spain. Furthermore, the school relies, in part, on support and sponsorship from commercial companies to maintain and upgrade facilities and equipment. Again, when times are tough, such help is much harder to come by. Juan Carlos is also concerned about the level of engagement between schools like his and industry representatives:

"Businesses do have a voice through the Chambers of Commerce; the reality is that we don't always have the time to get businesses involved in developing the curriculum [particularly during the crisis]. The door is always open though."

Although the students and staff are all convinced that the education they are engaged in gives them the best chance possible to make the transition from education to employment, the hard facts are that regardless of the quality of graduates leaving the school, if there are simply no jobs to go to then the future will continue to be difficult. The globalisation of the tourism and hospitality sector gives some hope - allied to the excellent language skills these students evidently possess - but if they are hoping to develop their careers in Spain, they may struggle to secure that all important first step on the ladder. Before the crisis, insertion rates from vocational schools into employment were running at near 100% within 12 months of graduation. Juan Carlos doesn't hazard a guess at where that rate currently stands but he smiles grimly when asked whether it's anywhere near that level now:

"At the moment, with the crisis, the reality is that when students finished, no one gets a contract".

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Competency-based learning is the future

We finish by talking about where the school is heading, and what the future holds. Juan Carlos is highly complementary about the work of the Community of Madrid, who administer the school suggesting that the resources poured into vocational education in recent years have doubled the chances of success for students leaving the school. Beyond this is their drive towards competency-based learning. The Community of Madrid have now defined the policy and approach and are in the process of introducing a curriculum based around key competencies. It's early days but the school is very much a part of that revolution. In many ways, they are already addressing some of the 'target' competencies identified by the Community of Madrid (which include things like quality of service, understanding the customer, teamwork and interpersonal skills) through the way in which the school is run. The focus on experiential learning, on open collaboration between teachers and students and on developing a cohesive ethos that becomes embedded across the organisation is equipping students with many of these competencies already. It's early days though. Juan Carlos explains:

"Key competencies are starting to be a part of teachers and students lives. We try to help people learn by doing, to know themselves and to develop these key competencies [as a consequence]. We try to get to know the students early on through evaluation, trying to understand their competencies from the very start."

The issue, to an extent, is one of teaching approach. Juan Carlos explains that teacher training is not currently focussed on how to teach competencies and believes there needs to be greater emphasis on this. In his view, it will be "4 or 5 years until teachers start to be better trained for this".

In this, as in many other things, it seems that Juan Carlos, his team and his students are ahead of the curve. Competency-based learning is beginning to take hold as a prevailing educational principle in many countries across the world but very little is actually happening on the ground. You can already see how this school is integrating the concept into everyday practice. Although young and relatively small, the school provides a shining example of how education can become about much more than simply getting a certificate. We don't talk about assessment or exams at all. The focus here is on creating an environment that embraces practical learning, that teaches young people the value of communication and teamwork, that encourages collaboration and respect and that gives students the tools they need to make it in the real world, however tough that world may be.

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Special thanks

Many thanks to all the staff and students of the Escuela de Hosteleria Y Turismo in Alcala de Henares for their participation.

Special thanks to the following individuals:

Layla Alarabe Peinado, Student of Tourism
Eduardo Useros Martin, Trainee Chef
Pablo Sachez Alvarez, Student of Hospitality & Restaurant Management
Sergio Laguarda Seboni, Cookery Teacher
Cesar Gil Muela, Hospitality Management Teacher
Juan Carlos del Mazo Blazquez, Director

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