Geneva advises teachers on religion in school

As children start the new school year, the secular canton of Geneva has issued guidelines for teachers on how to deal with religious issues in the classroom.

Geneva advises teachers on religion in school
File photo: C Carlstead

The 30-page booklet, entitled ‘Secularism at school’, aims to address questions such as whether students may pray at school, wear religious symbols or be exempted from certain activities such as swimming classes.

Issued by Geneva’s department for education, culture and sport (DIP), the guide, which is illustrated with cartoons, stresses the canton’s guiding principle of secularism and religious neutrality “in the context of great sensitivity surrounding religious questions,” the DIP said in a statement.

“In the current context, where emotion too often overrides reason, it’s necessary to remind ourselves of the framework and principles regarding secularism at school,” said Anne Emery-Torracinta, the minister in charge of the DIP.

“Respecting secularism in school life is the best way of guaranteeing harmony in a society which must learn to practise multiculturalism without losing sight of its roots.”

The guidelines follow recent controversy in Swiss schools over religious issues.

Earlier this year two Muslim teenage boys at a school in Therwil, in the canton of Basel-Country, caused outrage across Switzerland when they refused to shake their female teacher’s hand for religious reasons.

After the school initially allowed them to be exempted from the common Swiss practice, the decision was later overruled by cantonal authorities, which said female teachers should not be discriminated against and anyone doing so would be liable for a fine of up to 5,000 francs.

And in June a Muslim father was fined 4,000 francs for refusing to allow his two teenage girls to take swimming lessons at school.

Under Geneva’s guidelines, outlined in the booklet, teachers may not wear religious symbols but the practice is tolerated among students as long as it doesn’t prevent the integration of the student or cause problems at school.

All pupils are obliged to participate in all school studies – including physical education, swimming, biology and sex education – as well as linked extracurricular activities such as school camps, and may not be exempted for religious reasons.

Students and their parents must respect equality of the sexes, says the guide.

Pupils may have limited days off for religious festivals, if outside of exam times, but prayer rooms in schools are not allowed.

The booklet underlines that the “rules apply to all and are non-negotiable”, said the DIP.

But where problems occur, the child and/or their family should be guided to change their stance, “the goal being to educate, not exclude”.

Secularism is not about forced assimilation or ignorance of religion, says the booklet, but aims to ensure “peaceful coexistence of differences, to allow each person to follow their own path calmly”.

For members


Why teachers in Swiss schools are worried about falling education standards

Switzerland is seeing a drop in standards at its state schools, especially in German-speaking regions of the country, teacher's associations warn and it's all to do with staff, or the lack of them.

Why teachers in Swiss schools are worried about falling education standards

Switzerland’s teachers’ association has warned of worsening school education standards because of a lack of certified staff.

Association president Dagmar Rösler told a news conference that an increasing number of primary schools have had to bring in supply staff who are not qualified to be a teacher. “The quality of our education is in danger”, she said.

“The new school year starts with a further worsening of the shortage of qualified staff. This is hardly surprising and the schools are paying for what the politicians have failed to do for too long”, Rösler said.

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She added there is a need to train new teachers, reduce overtime work, and provide new teachers with financial support. In addition, Switzerland needs to “make the profession more attractive”, according to the educator.

Where is the situation worse?

Rösler said the situation was worse in the German-speaking cantons in Switzerland and that schools were having trouble recruiting teachers to fill vacant positions ahead of the new term.

In Bern, for example, there were still 500 positions vacant in May 2022. The situation, which was already bad, was worsened by the Ukraine refugee crisis. As schools resorted to “emergency solutions”, they ended up hiring insufficiently qualified stern.

Rösler said: “In the canton of Bern, about 1,500 out of 15,000 teachers are insufficiently qualified. Moreover, two-thirds of the professionals working in education settings in the canton of Aargau do not have appropriate qualifications”.

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“Teaching is a demanding and complex task that requires basic training. Where this is lacking; the remaining experienced teachers have to provide support”.

“What is meant to be a relief turns into the opposite”, she said.

Rösler warned that the knock-on effect could see parents opt to place their children in private schools or homeschool.

What needs to be done?

David Rey, president of the teachers’ workers’ union SER, said that the emergency measures taken must become the norm and that recruited persons who are inadequately trained “must not be offered permanent employment”.

He added that “false solutions” such as having more kids in the same class just place an additional burden on the teachers.

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For the professionals, the cantons need to recruit and hire more qualified people. They also ask governments to support the career start with a reduced workload to avoid “burnout” among young teachers.

“We must ensure that people stay in the profession for the long term with attractive working conditions, salaries that meet requirements, opportunities for further trending and protections against excessive work”, Rey said.