OPINION: Switzerland has found a winning formula for its primary schools
When it comes to primary schools Switzerland has got it right, writes Clare O'Dea although there are a few areas that could be improved upon.
My youngest child recently finished primary school, marking the end of our 11-year connection with the local school, one of four German-language primary schools in Fribourg city. Looking back in a slightly rose-tinted way, this is my school report for the local public school system: mostly excellent with just a few points where it could do better.
First of all, we as parents never faced any dilemma about where our children were going to attend school. No research was required, no application process, not a single anxious conversation. Because the children were registered in the commune, they were automatically granted places in the nearest school when they reached kindergarten age.
We knew that the allocated school would have the same standard of teaching and facilities as any other school in the canton, that the teachers would be paid the same and that we would get the same treatment as any other family. That is not a given in every country.
The fact that almost all children in Switzerland go to the local public school for their catchment area adds greatly to the sense of community here, and automatically connects the children of the locality to each other.
The two kindergarten or école enfantine years offer a gentle introduction to school life. In our school, older children were nominated as ‘godparents’ to the newcomers. Education wise, the ethos in Swiss schools is not to jump into literacy as soon as possible but to spend those first two years working on pre-literacy skills. By the time reading and writing is taught, Swiss children quickly catch up with their peers who learned the alphabet as tiny tots.
The sheer variety and richness of the weekly school experience at no extra cost is impressive. For instance, Swiss schools have embraced the trend of outdoor teaching with younger children. In the early years my children spend one morning a week in the forest with their teachers in all weathers. Good for the soul and the senses.
The other activities built into the curriculum are sports, music, swimming lessons, in our case once every three weeks, a monthly visit to the local library where all the children come home laden with books, and monthly ice-skating afternoons in winter.
They also have specialised teachers for arts and crafts, including skills like woodwork, sewing, knitting, pottery, the works. The only possible downside to this is the mountains of objects brought home to keep forever.
In Fribourg, there is free transport to and from school and parents are discouraged from driving their children to primary school. Children from the age of five or six go to school independently on foot, by bicycle, by bus as if it were the most normal thing in the world, which it is to them.
Our school arranged a summer camp every three years so that all children got to experience it twice in their school career. They did the same thing with ski camps, with financial support and equipment offered to families on low incomes.
The school holds an annual autumn hike for the pupils and various events for the whole family to attend – a Christmas market, end-of-year party and other open days. The children always had something to look forward to. It takes a special commitment from the staff to make the school such an entertaining and positive place.
A wide range of free therapies are also offered in the school building, including speech therapy, help with dyslexia and dyscalculia and motor skills, for instance. Additional classes of German as a second language are also provided for those who needed it.
Of course the school is not paradise. Any large group of humans will have complications. Over the years, I knew of two families who moved their children out of the school to private schools because they were not happy and also a small number of children who were moved to special schools because the school couldn’t manage them.
And inevitably, all good things come to an end. In general in Switzerland, the education system includes a streaming framework for children at the end of primary school to decide what type of class the children will join in secondary school.
This selection system on Fribourg is based on continuous assessment, the teacher’s opinion and a special exam. It has its critics and causes stress to some families who feel there is a lot at stake. This is where reality intrudes on the idyll. How the transition goes depends a lot on the atmosphere created by the teacher and the parents’ attitude.
Overall, our local primary school succeeded in creating a safe space for our children to grow, learn, gain independence and a sense of responsibility. As parents, we appreciated that our children spent their days in a loving supportive atmosphere. It’s what every child should have.