This week, I interviewed a mum who arrived in Switzerland with school-aged children. This is an encouraging example of how children who join the school system at a later stage can still thrive in Swiss schools.
How old are your children and which grades are they attending……?
My oldest daughter is 14 years old and is in her second year of ‘Kanti’ (academic stream in secondary school also called Gymnasium)*. My younger daughter, aged 12, is in her first year of ‘Sek’ (academic/vocational stream in secondary).
Having the girls at two different school streams comes with its own challenges. In general, high school timetables are more irregular than primary school, and even more so for the two different schools! For example, my younger daughter takes the school bus just after 7 am for a school start at 7.30 am and comes home for lunch. Whilst my eldest due to the location of her school doesn’t come home for lunch. And some days doesn’t get home until 6.30pm!
Describe your families’ journey through local school in a few sentences:
When we arrived in Switzerland, our then 7 and 9 year old daughters had already been to schools in Great Britain and the Netherlands for 3 and five years, respectively. This obviously means that they were well past Kindergarten age and got thrown into the Swiss school system mid primary.
We knew that we wanted to be part of the local community, have local friends, introduce the girls to a second language and that Switzerland was going to be our home for the foreseeable future so we selected to send the girls to the local school route.
Our children attended a German integration class for one year and then joined their regular class, my eldest went to grade 4 and my younger to grade 3 in our local village school. Once in their regular class, the girls got an additional 3 years of DaZ support (additional German for non-native speakers).
Fortunately, our journey has been relatively smooth. Teachers were always open to talk with me about any issues that I might have had (bullying, grade concerns, additional support, etc) and easy to communicate with via email or face to face.
When it came to Grade 5/6, we didn’t put any pressure on the girls because we knew that the system offers so many opportunities and pathways that not all decisions are made in year 5 or 6. It’s such a misconception that their future is decided at the age of 12!
Our older daughter was always clear that she wanted to go to Kanti (Gymnasium). She was very focused with her studies to achieve her goal. Our younger daughter is one of the youngest in her grade. Being at ‘Sek’ gives her more time to grow in herself, get more organised and focus a little more on her German. She would like to change over to Kanti after 2 or 3 years but once again will be her decision. Kanti is hard! Hard to get into and hard to stay at once you get there.
What are particular challenges for Expat children and parents?
In the UK, you have more interaction with teachers almost daily, in Swiss school you don’t get that same level of involvement and in many ways you are actually feel quite removed from your child’s education. Here you don’t walk your child to and from school and therefore you do not meet other parents so you end up feeling quite isolated.
I was used to being part of school community. I always use to volunteer in the school and that was no longer an option here. It felt as if I was being made redundant, and I no longer knew what was going on with our children’s education or within the school community.
Forming friendships is also difficult for the children, especially when coming in when you are nine or ten. All other children are quite tight, they have known each other since Kindergarten. Swiss people might have lived in the same village for generations so friendships have developed for years. As an outsider, forging friendships is difficult here, they come but they take more time. As a parent that is heart-breaking to watch and your children might need a lot of support and cuddles. Friendships eventually come, but it takes time.
In your opinion, what are the strengths and the weaknesses of the local system?
I like that they teach the children to be individuals and to be responsible for their learning. Kids are allow to be kids. They are allow time to play and explore without the pressure of life. It provides them great skills for managing their own time and being responsible for their own homework.
In terms of weaknesses, I don’t like the constant testing, especially in non-academic subjects, for example a test on how well they can sew a straight line. So I have taught my daughters that some tests do matter whereas others don’t!
I also don’t like the lack of teacher praise and encouragement. Your child might get a 5.5 but as far as the teacher is concerned that is it! (Note: 6 is the top mark and 5.5. is considered a very good mark). The praise has to come from the parents.
The teacher doesn’t encourage the kids to strive and to do their best, teachers do not usually provide direction for the child or give them extra encouragement needed to excel. They simply don’t tell them how to improve. Also, there is no feedback from the teacher to parents. You have to observe yourself if the notes are dropping and take action if you are concerned. Otherwise, this would not be brought to your attention. Praise, encouragement and feedback are lacking.
In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?
I don’t think so! There is not a lot more we could have done differently.
Do you have any recommendations for incoming parents regarding local school?
Relax!!! Have faith in the system and in your children. Children adapt very quickly. Don’t hesitate to approach the teacher, teachers here are normally very helpful. Ask for a translator! It will take time to adjust but they will adapt, you will adapt.
This is your child education adventure. It is an adventure that you share with them. It will see you both grow through new situations, new challenges, new difficulties but you will find strength, courage and passion on this adventure together. Remember to laugh! A little bit of crying is ok (in small doses)
Also, some parents are wary about the power teachers have in Switzerland, especially when it comes to recommending kids to one of the secondary school stream. You should keep an open mind that the teacher spends up to 6 hours per day for two years so he or she knows your child quite well.
Any other observations?
I often talk to parents who are not sure whether to send their children to local or to international school. I always try to recommend that they send children to local school even though they may only be here for 2 or 3 years. Parents might be worried about their children falling behind in English and Sciences but in my experience they quickly bounce back to their current year group back home. There might be a gap initially but the fact that they get immersed into a different language and culture outweighs all concerns about keeping up with English.
* Kanti and Gymnasium are both words for the academic stream of secondary school and are often used interchangeably. As there are private and public schools, the term Kanti (short for Kantonalschule or cantonal school), is often used for public school and Gymnasium for private schools.