The Swiss on setting a good example for us
When I was at school, I could only imagine one path. I only saw value in getting top GCSE grades, four good A-Levels and then heading on to study at Cambridge.
What would I have done if that had not been possible for me?
As time has passed, and as I meet young people in different areas of education, and meet adults whose experiences of school are very different to my own, I am more aware that the question should be:
What would I have done if this was not exactly the path that my school was set up for?
The fact that I was fortunate enough to fit into the way in which the education system is set up in the UK made it simple for me to pursue my dreams and make the most of my abilities. But for many young people, the narrow, often purely academic, structure of schooling is not the right fit for them, and does not place enough value on, or nurture and develop, their natural talents or interests.
What if you are a square peg being forced through a round hole? It would be uncomfortable and demoralising. As the saying goes, one size does not fit all…
I am encouraged by the developing discourse on apprenticeships and it is positive to see the TV advertising campaign that sheds them in such a positive light for both parents and students. But we are not quite in a place yet as a nation where we feel confident in the value of alternatives versus the purely academic route. This is made most clear in certain people’s reactions to any mention of grammar schools. The immediate assumption seems to be that it means all other paths are “worse”, “second-rate” or that they leave those that “fail” the 11+ to “rot”. These are indicative of this skewed value system that implies that any other path than an academic one will be substandard and let down those that pursue it.
This is the problem. Not choice. Not variety. Not technical education. Not ambitious academic rigour. But the all-pervasive idea that anything other than the best GCSEs and a degree leave students doomed. Frankly, it is bunkum and, I would argue, dangerous and damaging.
For three months of the year I teach in a school in Switzerland, which admits around 40 students between the ages of 12 and 14 years old. Most of the students come from the USA, but we do have the odd participant from Australia, South Africa, Hong Kong or Singapore, we even had a boy come from Costa Rica. So there are a decent variety of school approaches and educational philosophies to compare, and the students consider these in comparison to the Swiss educational approach as part of their extended humanities project whilst they are here.
I am fairly confident that our impression of the Swiss is that they are an advanced, effective and wealthy nation; indeed, the Swiss brand is synonymous with quality and success.
I strongly believe that this is not because of their top European ranking in the PISA tables. This is not because they obsess about narrow achievements in sets of examinations. They seem to have achieved a great cultural balance which values hard work, commitment to a skillset and trustworthiness as the most important values to result from schooling. Moreover, the Swiss education system offers genuine choice for students, without a variety in quality.
From their first days at school the Swiss do not ignore the broader aspects of education that seem to be diminishing in the UK. There is a focus on key Swiss values of neatness, orderliness, punctuality, responsibility and respect for peers, surroundings and elders alike. Rituals are developed at kindergarten to instil these values as habitual. Students spend time playing in early years, being taught collaboration and teamwork, appropriate conduct in group discussions, and to be prepared and appropriately equipped for the classroom each day.
When the students move on to formal classes these include a more balanced range of subjects, using mental as well as manual faculties. And schoolteachers spend less time worrying about behaviour management as students have developed good habits that mean they arrive in class ready and prepared to learn.
At around the age of 14 students begin to prepare for secondary school, which takes one of two paths. The first is open to those with high average scores across a range of subjects and prepares students for Gymnasium – an academic pathway leading towards the possibility of a university degree. The other pathway involves students considering a profession or skill that they would like to pursue and then undertaking their high school years as part of an apprenticeship. This is called Realschule. And those that attend it are not at all classified as “dropouts” or “second tier”. In fact, it is such a valued path that often students who qualify for Sekundarschule and Gymnasium choose to enter Realschule and undertake an apprenticeship. Only 20% of students continue into the academic stream and study beyond secondary school. Even then, of those that then go on to University, the dropout rate is over 50% in the first semester, as standards remain high and so represent a challenge too far for even some of the brightest scholars in the country.
I am drawn to this idea of choice, and personal strengths being noted and nurtured. It is appealing for child-centric education to be about the individual child rather than about forcing the child through a narrow set of comprehensive qualifications to determine their options. I also know from experience the value of an open, liberal education that gives space for academic investigation and discussion. I simply don’t understand why we seem to feel that vocational-technical and liberal-academic schools cannot coexist in the UK. It seems striking that Swiss individuals choose the path that suits them and offers the best match of their strengths and opportunity for success. Even more so, that, given the approach to education leading up to this point, students are responsible enough to make informed decisions, while the system focuses on maintaining standards and respect for those that achieve each separate qualification.
And this is what really makes the difference for me, and would be a goal worth fighting for in the UK, the fact that the Swiss laud graduation from either stream in the same way as a result. When a student graduates from Gymnasium, receives a degree, achieves a qualification as a carpenter or an electrician, or as a ski patrol specialist, a notice is printed in the newspaper to publicise the fact. And the community know who has achieved which qualification, who to go to if you require specific expertise, and they trust that the subjects of these notices have reached a standard that makes them worth employing, hiring or consulting. And they can send their congratulations, if they know them or their family, to the plumber and the architect, the doctor and the lawyer alike.
On a recent trip to Schwyz, the birthplace of Switzerland, we struck up a conversation with an America-Swiss couple about their four children’s path through the Swiss education system. And they could not have been happier. Two went to Gymnasium, two Realschule and each is so happy, works hard, learns a lot and comes out qualified. None are limited by their choices, but they are qualified and employable. They reminded me that the apprenticeships take place on two or three days a week, and students continue to do classroom subjects alongside their more vocational work.
Furthermore, from what I hear about students in Swiss education, they are hard working and content with their choices. They know where they want to go and are offered the opportunities and pathways to get there. Self worth and pride are felt by completing a job well, by respect gained for competence, not via the zeros on a paycheck or the car in a garage. Professional reputation is more important than financial wealth or reward as a result and the Swiss economy ticks along like clockwork, providing a decent standard of living for the egg farmer and the insurance broker alike.
I hope that this is a cultural shift we are willing and about to perform. I think that alternative pathways, with real respect and recognition, be they academic or vocational, will lead to far greater satisfaction amongst school-age children. And consequently, improve motivation and performance amongst all professions and communities.