Swiss canton wants to make parents pay if children speak poor German

Swiss canton wants to make parents pay if children speak poor German
One third of kindergarten kids in the capital of Thurgau, Frauenfeld, needed German language classes in 2014. File photo: fermate/Depositphotos
The Swiss canton of Thurgau is pushing to have the Swiss constitution changed so it can force parents to share the costs of language classes for their kindergarten-aged children if their German is not good enough.

The proposal aims to save the canton money and boost the integration of the Swiss-born children of foreigners living in Switzerland.

It’s part of a long-running debate in the country about how to deal with the fact that an increasing number of children are starting compulsory preschool education without having the necessary language skills.

Read also: Thurgau steps up language requirements for foreigners seeking Swiss citizenship

In the case of Thurgau, the cantonal parliament last month passed a motion calling for the Swiss constitution to be changed so that it can make parents of kindergarten children with poor German skills pay a contribution towards the costs of German-language classes.

Parents would also be required to pay something towards the costs of interpreters if these are needed for parent–teacher meetings.

The new rules would not apply to refugees or people who had only recently arrived in the country, according to Urs Schrepfer, a cantonal deputy with the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP), and one of the driving forces behind the motion.

A long-running dispute

The cantonal parliament's motion is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the costs of German language teaching in Thurgau’s kindergartens.

As far back as 2015, the canton changed its laws to force parents to share those costs.

But the Federal Supreme Court struck down the changes after four Thurgau residents launched a legal appeal. They argued the new law contravened Article 19 of the Swiss constitution which states everyone has the right to a “free basic education”.

Now Thurgau wants the constitution itself to be amended so it can roll out the desired changes.

But while there is widespread recognition of the fact that German language skills remain a problem at the canton's kindergartens – just over a third of all kindergarten children in Thurgau's capital Frauenfeld required German classes in 2014 – not everyone is in favour of the Thurgau approach.

The president of the Swiss Teachers Federation, Beat W. Zemp told Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger that the canton’s proposed law would meet a constitutional roadblock on two fronts – in terms of Article 19 and Article 18, which guarantees the freedom to use any language.

Alternative models

Meanwhile, others have pointed to the current model in the canton of Basel-Stadt where parents are sent a questionnaire a year before their children enter compulsory kindergarten to ask about their children’s language skills.

If children do not have the necessary skills at that stage, they must attend two half days of language playgroup a week. If the youngsters do not attend, parents face a fine of 1,000 Swiss francs (€880). Luzern has opted for a similar model, while Zurich chose not to follow this path because of the high costs involved.

Read also: Zurich 'to force kindergarten children to take German classes'