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International rankings showcase Switzerland’s school struggles

Strong in mathematics but getting worse in reading, the PISA rankings have highlighted just how much Switzerland’s schools are struggling to keep up.

International rankings showcase Switzerland’s school struggles
Photo: Depositphotos

High school students in Switzerland have shown a marked decline in reading competency, according to the updated PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings. 

The main bright spot for Swiss students is in mathematics, where Switzerland was well above the OECD average, while Switzerland also ranked strongly in science. 

China and Singapore topped the rankings in each of the main categories, while Estonia and Japan also featured prominently towards the top of the list. 

Reading woes: Bad and getting worse

The ranking of high school students in reading may have been in line with the OECD average, but it placed behind many other European countries when it comes to reading comprehension. 

Indeed, Switzerland’s score of 484 points put it seventeenth out of European countries, while it ranked 27th overall. 

Perhaps most troublingly for Swiss school authorities is how much things have declined. Switzerland’s score was 492 in 2015 and 509 in 2012. 

The study also found that half of the students surveyed do not read texts for enjoyment, while one quarter of Swiss school students have trouble reading simple texts – an increase of four per cent from the previous study. 

Poor reading levels have been an increasing problem in Swiss schools. Image: Depositphotos

‘Significantly below’ previous years

As noted by the authors of the study, the decline in Switzerland – in all categories – has been considerable. 

“In 2018, mean performance in reading, mathematics and science in Switzerland was significantly below mean performance in PISA 2006, 2009 or 2012,” said the OECD. 

“The decline in performance was particularly marked since 2012. Overall trends followed similar trajectories at the top and bottom of the performance distribution.”

Immigration contributing to poor scores

According to the authors of the survey, a major reason for Switzerland’s decline in reading capacity is due to the high proportion of Swiss teenagers who have an immigrant background. 

One in three (34 percent) of students in the age bracket come from an immigrant background, one of the highest proportions in the OECD.

This has increased by ten percentage points in the past decade. 

“In Switzerland, in 2009 as well as in 2018, immigrant students scored about 50 points below non-immigrant students in reading,” the authors said. 

The OECD suggested that Switzerland could follow the lead of Canada, Australia, Estonia and Ireland, who have managed to score highly despite also having high immigrant populations. 

The results in these countries show “disadvantaged young people could attain above-OECD-average reading skills with enough support”. 

Image: OECD

Good in science, better in maths

The news for Swiss schools was better in science and maths. 

Switzerland ranked fourth overall in Europe for mathematics after Estonia, Poland and the Netherlands, while the performance in science was ranked as “statistically significantly above the OECD average”. 

The Federation of Swiss Teachers (LCH) said that while the results in maths and science were positive, changes in education policy were needed to boost reading comprehension. 

“The average reading performance is not satisfactory, the LCH said in a statement

“There is a need for action in the areas of reading literacy, early intervention, the use of digital technologies in schools and the promotion of giftedness.”

What are the PISA rankings?

Produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the PISA study is the world’s largest international comparative school performance study. 

The 2018 edition took into account 600,000 pupils from 79 countries took part, including 5822 from Switzerland. 

Since 2000, hundreds of thousands of students aged 15 have been tested every three years in the fields of mathematics, reading and the natural sciences. This year, the focus of the study was reading. 

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This year the main focus was on reading competence. The tests are now carried out primarily on computers, with pupils having to complete various tasks in order to assess their competency in different subject areas. 

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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.