The Boy Outside the Bubble

An unexpected consequence of joining a profession like teaching – and I suspect any other occupation – is that your world-view becomes heavily distorted. When you spend upwards of 40 hours a week year after year doing the same thing, it cannot help but assume disproportionate significance in your mind, while the rest of the wider world retreats to the margins of your attention. Rather sadly, when a holiday is upon us, I often find that I simply can’t remember how to use all the time that teaching-related activity normally occupies, and I initially spend quite a lot of it just staring into space. Fortunately, my other interests normally take over quite quickly and my parallel life briefly resumes…

After a week when an independent school headmaster stated that he felt making (bad) teachers’ private lives hell was fair game, I think it does us well to regain a better sense of proportion. Such an impasse really does mark the point when the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and it’s worth remembering that not only does life go on ‘outside’ but we are actually meant to be part of it, rather than in a bubble all of our own.

It’s for this reason that I always try to contextualise my thinking about teaching within wider issues – after all, education is for life, not the other way round. Apart from anything else, I’m not sure how we can function as educators without having some perspective on how both we and our pupils fit into day-to-day life, and indeed the bigger picture. I have found that some of my most helpful perspectives on teaching have come not from the endless shelves of books dedicated to classroom practice, but from those covering other matters entirely –  which can nonetheless throw  useful shafts of light on life as a teacher. My current reading, for example,  is I Spend Therefore I Am – the True Cost of Economics by Philip Roscoe, which is provoking insight into just how far the ‘economization’ of life has arguably gone, and with what effects; more on this another time.

This is also the reason why I have always engaged with internationalism: seeing how another society does things is an excellent way of looking into one’s own bubble from the outside for a change. To my mind, this is indispensable for any teacher who wishes to retain a greater sense of what it’s all for in the first place. The benefits of doing so can also be found in the recent writings of Tim Walker, an American teacher living in Finland.

I once asked the philosopher Alain de Botton (himself half-Swiss) whether he thought it possible ever to know another country as well as the natives do; the predictably unpredictable reply was yes, in fact he thought outsiders could in some ways even know a country better, as they tend to notice things that the locals take for granted.

So if we are still motivated by the ideal of making for our country and people a ‘better future’, then maybe there are lessons we can cautiously learn from elsewhere. In my case, I am fortunate to know Switzerland well, having travelled there many times since childhood and having had friends there (both ex-pat and native) since the late ‘80s. I visit at least yearly, have been to most parts of the country, and through repeated visits have come to know a couple of localities in both the French and German areas very well. The ‘real’ Switzerland is, of course, not the country of the ‘chocolate box’ stereotype, but a modern, working country that just happens, in my view, to have got many day-to-day things right.

For the last seven or eight years I have worked closely with an anglophile Swiss teacher to develop a school partnership for both teachers and pupils; in that time, our two families have become close friends. I have also come to know more of the staff at his school, and this has allowed me a little more insight into how wider Swiss society and culture is reflected in its education system. This in turn provides useful perspectives on our own system in Britain – there is nothing quite like having  foreign guests on hand to hold a mirror up to how one does things at home…

But before one can attempt to assess a single undertaking such as the education system, one really needs to set it in context. I hope readers will bear with me and appreciate the brief respite from my grumbles about the less-than-perfect aspects of the British education system!

Even with extensive familiarity, though, it is still never easy to know whether one’s impressions are either accurate or representative – and how can one hope to sum up even a small nation in the space of a blog post?  Nonetheless, I will attempt to share some of my experiences and welcome any corrections from anyone who knows the country better than I. Should all this provoke further interest, I suggest the books of Diccon Bewes, whose ex-pat experiences offer an easily-read, if slightly glib introduction to the nation.

Switzerland is by no means perfect: it struggles with aspects of its recent past, and also with some aspects of the present day, as the globalised world increasingly impinges on its own distinctive way of life. That has been shown in recent days by the referendum vote to limit immigration, which is going to renegotiate Switzerland’s relationship with the E.U. Well, I suppose democracy carries with it the right to be wrong – but for Britons, perhaps a more significant lesson is the fact that Swiss democracy means that any citizens’ petition garnering more than 100,000 signatures automatically triggers a national referendum, the result of which is legally binding – even on the government. What would be the consequences of that happening in the U.K.?

Despite the obvious differences, Switzerland shares some experiences with Britain: both nations in some ways are ‘outsiders’ in the wider Europe, while still remaining inextricably bound to it – the British because of those 26 miles of water, and the Swiss because of their historic mountain barriers. There is also a bond between the two nations that stretches back to the 19th Century when British tourism started to develop what was then still a poor, marginal land. It is noticeable even today that there seems to be a natural empathy, visible in the way our groups of students almost always bond strongly, the British parents more-than-normally receptive to hosting Swiss students, in a way that does not always happen with other nationalities.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from either nation’s past; despite determined independence, Switzerland’s historic relationship with Germany, for example, could not but be influenced by the two countries’ proximity. In Britain’s case, the effects of early industrialisation, Empire, a strong social hierarchy and two world wars remain ambivalently with us. Likewise, it is pointless considering Swiss approaches to life without remembering that in per capita terms it is one of the richest nations on the planet; without delving too deeply into how that came to be, it is incontrovertible that levels of public investment and provision in Switzerland are a reflection of that wealth.

We also need to bear in mind that the practicalities of doing things in a nation little over 200 miles long, with a population of eight million, are different from those in a nation of 63 million extending over several times that distance; on the other hand, Swiss and British population densities are very similar once one excludes the uninhabitable areas of the former (which themselves present unique challenges).  So we have to be careful about conclusions drawn from such comparisons, but that accepted, I think ordinary Swiss life can still provide thought-provoking experiences for those of us in education who are concerned with making that ‘better future’.

So, after this rather lengthy preamble, I will simply attempt to offer in following posts a concise set of personal impressions – usually those that have been borne out through repeated visits or through conversation with the natives – and then to move onto a more specific coverage of the education system. My aim in this is to prick the self-preoccupied bubble of British education just a little, to challenge the habitual exceptionalism of our national psyche, and to see what we might usefully learn from the experiences of others…

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