Promising land?

This is part three of my trilogy on the Swiss education system. New readers may wish to consider the previous two posts to place this one in context.

To British teachers’ eyes, the Swiss education system can appear rather old-fashioned. But I see that as a good thing: as I have attempted to show in the previous instalments of this discussion, a notable quality of the Swiss character appears to be a reluctance to change just for the sake of it, and continuity is valued. In this sense, they have retained an understanding of education as a cultural and intellectual matter for individual teachers and pupils, rather than as some kind of macroeconomic tool for the use of politicians.

The notion of education as being a market in its own right is also noticeable by its absence; it remains a socio-cultural undertaking, even if there are indications that this is beginning to change. There are the early signs, for example of schools starting to compete with respect to parental choice – and this seems to be showing signs of having exactly the same effect that it has in the U.K. as more effort is given to marketing. Interest has been shown in our systems in this respect; is this a good thing?

I should concede at this point that my direct experience of Swiss schools is limited to the one we have partnered with, albeit over an extended period. This being a gymnasium (grammar school),  practices may not transfer directly to general British experience, though that is not to prevent it from being considered as a model in its own right – provided one is prepared to suspend any views one might have on the desirability of academic selection. As yet, I have not seen the inside of a non-grammar school, though I have encountered some of the students who have transferred at a mid-stage, who seemed keen to take advantage of their new-found academic opportunity. Therefore I am not really able to comment on how Switzerland treats its less academic students, except from general discussion of what is provided for them. That said, wider encounters suggest that the non-academic population is in general well socialised and relatively cultured – these standards are for all. Good service is a strong and widespread ethic. I have, however, checked the factual content of this post with my Swiss colleague, so it is hopefully accurate as far as it goes – always allowing of course for the fact that there is no such thing as general applicability in Switzerland.

Despite this limitation, I think there is much to reflect on for British teachers in the Swiss experience – not least in the context of my previous post: that Switzerland has been able to maintain both a relatively stable, equitable society and a highly successful economy for the majority of its inhabitants in a way that the U.K has struggled to do. In my own case, the school I work at, while non-selective has an above-average ability range, and so there are some comparisons that can be made, for example in student attitudes and achievements or staff conditions and expectations.

One might also observe from the conditions of service for Swiss teachers that the high-pressure British approach is not the only (or even the best) way to achieve good educational outcomes. After all, for what it’s worth, Switzerland is ranked higher than the U.K. in the PISA tables…

A general overview of the Swiss system

Again, this varies from canton to canton, but the general model is as follows:

Primary schools are for 7-11 year olds, which may be preceded by kindergarten from five. The Swiss do not seem convinced that starting children ever-earlier in schooling is a good idea. There seems to be more belief that young children should be nurtured in the home. This late start seems to have little impact on progress by the time people reach mid-teens. (I have watched my friend’s son grow from a nine-year-old into 16 year old…)

Early-secondary school is provided for 11-14 year olds, this being on a comprehensive basis, and it is used to identify the preferable track for each student in their later teens.

From 14-19, students attend either a gymnasium (grammar school) or a technical school. The proportion is roughly 30%/70% though this varies from place to place. Technical schools combine a general education with a technical apprenticeship, and many Swiss companies are involved in delivering this aspect.  There are a few general schools in some areas, but the majority pattern is as above.

At 19-plus, students either go to university or to a technical college depending on the pathway they previously followed, if they do not wish to enter the workplace.

Grammar schools seem to be highly sought-after, access to which varies around the country. Some areas use a formal entry exam, while others rely on a form of continuous assessment. There is scope for strong students to transfer into the grammar school in later years, and this often happens, along with a requisite trial period. From what I can tell, selection does not seem to be a major issue.

Once in the grammar school, students must pass each year’s exams, or repeat the year. There must be two clear years between any requiring repeats, and the failure of a repeat year effectively requires the student to leave the school, though I believe there is an appeals procedure. This puts the onus firmly on the students and seems to motivate them highly; they largely seem very focused on their studies.

Students are only examined at the end of their higher-secondary phase – there are no 16+ exams. The Matura is a nationally-recognised qualification that brings access to all universities. It requires students to follow a broad range of five core subjects which are formally examined, and a range of specialist extras for which there is continuous assessment. It works rather like the International Baccalaureate and involves a major project at the end.

All exams are set by the schools and validated by local universities; there are no national exam boards. A recent innovation is the use of a cantonal subject-advisor to co-ordinate standards across the district. There are also oral examinations, conducted by senior teachers and university staff who visit other schools to conduct these.

Impressions of a specific school

Perhaps the overwhelming first impression of the Swiss school I know is that nobody seems to be in charge. People just go about their business, and management is so low-key as to be almost invisible; the atmosphere is more like a college or university than the typical British secondary. There is no sign of people directing others what to do, what not to do, where to go, how to behave. The whole thing seems to work on the assumption that people know what to do, and will do it. I have never seen any signs of this being abused, though I gather there are still issues of student feeling which arise, so it is not a matter of complete contentment.

The school building is very functional-modern, on several floors built around a central four-storey atrium with a work-space on the ground floor and a well-equipped formal library. Most amenities are similar to U.K. schools, though there is perhaps less attempt at homeliness. There are far greater amounts of circulation space than I have seen in British schools – corridors are often four or more metres wide. There is a good-quality cafeteria which serves meals over a staggered lunchtime; there seems to be no quality stigma attached to school meals. Recycling facilities are notable, as is the fact that the school seems to use only recycled paper.


Central atrium of our partner school. Classrooms on four levels; library lower left.

Lessons are 45 minutes long, the first starting at 07:40, and the last ending at 17:30. However, within that time, neither staff nor students will be in lessons all the time; both are allowed to go home when they have nothing timetabled. This is made easier by the fact that the majority live close to the school and many use the off-road cycle-ways that pass right by the school. The day proceeds in a very low-key manner; even the lesson changes are marked by a gentle chime rather than the strident bells that I am used to.

Whole-school assemblies seem unknown – as does any dress-code for either the staff or students. Many dress extremely casually, at least in summer.

Relations between staff and students seem very cordial, though there is clearly a formal protocol in the background. Behaviour simply doesn’t seem to be an issue (though my current lack of knowledge of non-grammar schools is a major omission on this front). I sometimes wonder whether the British tradition of formally emphasising conduct and codified behaviours in the school setting actually invites more problems than it solves. From my experience, in Switzerland behaviour as an issue hardly seems to be on the radar – compliance is just the norm. I have never seen a Swiss student being disciplined or rebuked by a teacher; I know from anecdote that this doesn’t mean there are never transgressions, but from my observations, they seem to be resolved with nothing more than a quiet word in the ear. This seems to stem in part from a view on the part of the staff that students’ wider behaviour is neither their business nor their responsibility – but then, the students generally seem to accept the (more widely socialised?) limits. I do, however, realise the impact that an observer can have on the observed…

The school I know is about 700-strong; this is managed by a head and two deputies (that is all). There are around 120 staff in total – as many as we have for 1800 students. Heads of department do exist, with some co-ordination work – but the role is largely honorary, and rotates every two years or so. There is very little sense of hierarchy in staff interactions.

A maximum teaching load is 21 x 45 minute lessons per week – but spread over that much wider time frame. What is more, many teachers opt to work part-time, feeling that a full timetable leaves inadequate preparation, marking and personal time. 80% timetable is fairly usual. Pay is reduced pro-rata, but this is pretty much a professional entitlement and expectation. Teachers do have some limited say over when their lessons fall, and are not expected to be in school unless they are teaching, or choose to be. Presence at meetings of various sorts is required (timetabled, often during the day) averaging one per week.

Two of the staff also lecture at the local university (I have shadowed one as he was in school in the morning and caught the tram to lecture undergraduates in the afternoon). More also work in teacher-training institutions.

The quality and amount of teacher work-space is very high, and includes a full-scale professional library. However, computer provision seems limited (in the school as a whole) compared to my experience. Is this a bad thing?


Part of the staff work area

I am left with the impression that teachers are regarded as semi-autonomous professionals; the relationship with the school institution is quite different – I would say more balanced. Direct diktats seem rare – almost everything is done by negotiation, often simply between informal groups of teachers who happen to be involved. There seems to be very little in the way of government direction for schools, and indeed little from the schools to individual teachers in terms of how they are expected to teach. Most classrooms are well-equipped (still including high-quality chalk-boards and OHP’s); while projectors etc. do figure, they are not widely used. Many lessons are very traditional to British eyes, but also quite informal, with students being left to organise themselves without much teacher intervention.

Knowledge acquisition for its own sake seems to figure highly in what is taught – as it does generally in the intellectual life of the nation; doctorates seem to figure more highly amongst staff qualifications than in the U.K. There seems to be little in the way of meta-thinking or skills-application such as has been common in the U.K.; neither is there much specific emphasis on matters like employability. Teachers seem to see themselves as being in a more defined academic role than in the U.K., rather than a pastoral or general welfare one. That said, a feature of generally-close Swiss communities is that parents are often known personally, and it is not uncommon for a parent to phone a teacher at home. In general, the division between work and ‘not work’ is more blurred in Switzerland than in the U.K. – but it cuts both ways.

Cover for absent colleagues does occur, though only for younger students, mid-way through the day; other lessons simply don’t happen. Staff who cover absent colleagues are paid extra for doing so.

Staff over 55 receive timetables reduced by two lessons a week in recognition of their increasing age(!) and long service entitles you to extra holiday, though this is being pared back. This used to start with two weeks for each decade served, which could also be taken as reduced teaching load.

It is quite difficult to ascertain comparative pay levels, as there are so many other variables such as taxation methods, but an estimate would be 20% above British levels, though the higher cost of living needs to be taken into account. There is a universal pension plan for state employees, with 10% of gross salary deducted at source. Professional bodies exist as in the U.K. Teachers are required to have a degree and teaching qualification and there is an induction scheme for new teachers similar to that in the U.K. However, teachers seem to move from school to school much less than in the U.K.  – it is still almost a position for life.

It is worth noting that in a border area, it is not unknown for teachers to work in other countries, and indeed my friend’s son goes to school in Germany.

Once again, I largely leave readers to draw their own conclusions. This is purely a personal impression of one school, yet it has proved great food for thought for both me and the parties of British staff and students that I have taken to visit. An abiding impression is that education is Switzerland remains seen as a social and cultural matter; though the economic aspect is not neglected, it is certainly not forced. There is, as yet, little sense of an educational market, with all the extrinsic pressures that has brought to bear in the U.K. Schools and teachers largely seem left to get on with their work, and the boundaries of expectation between institution and private individual seem both more balanced and more respected than they are in the U.K. Yet, from what I have seen, attainment is high. For all the lack of institutionalised pressure, this seems to be a system that, as with the country at large, works.

Will Hutton once identified three forms of capitalism: the tooth-and-claw Anglo-American sort, the cradle-to-grave Asian sort – and the more socially-aware continental European sort. As I have tried to suggest, the relationship between individuals, their economy and society is indivisible: in the case of Switzerland, we seem to have a country that has balanced strong economic growth with social wellbeing and a sense of justice, collective interest with individual liberties. In the U.K., we instinctively seem to look to the American experience, which is odd given its propensity for scoring at least as many socio-economic own-goals as our own; it seems strange that we remain in relative ignorance of a more benign system, relatively speaking on our own doorstep.


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