Going local: Expat experiences with public schools in Switzerland

In this weekly interview series, I ask Expat parents with children in local school about their experiences. This week, I talked to Gaia, a mum with 3 children in the Swiss system.

How old are your children and which grades are they attending……?

I have three children, one 7 year old daughter in grade 2, one 10 year old son in grade 4 and my oldest daughter in grade 6.

Describe your families’ journey though local school

All kids have been at the same school building since Kindergarten. My oldest started in April of KG1, and was totally mute for a full year at school (we had just come back from the USA and she had forgotten all her german). We had plenty of support from teachers to help her. My son also had a few behavioural issues in KG (roughness and hitting), which we also dealt with in partnership with the teachers. The youngest went “early” into primary Grade 1 – again a process that was handled in partnership with the teacher. And now we are in discussions with the 6th grade teacher for the transition to secondary, school the so-called Übertrittsverfahren.

What are particular challenges for Expat children and parents?

For me, the main challenge is communication with school.
Secondly, understanding the system and the consequences that arise in terms of how children are challenged or not, the degree to which “differences” are accepted or not.

Also knowing how to choose the right path at secondary level, and understanding exactly what the IMPORTANT decision criteria are for this step, like, for example the level of German needed.

In your opinion, what are the strengths and the weaknesses of the local system?

Strengths are that it is a massive plus in terms of integration. Private schools are considered “dropout” options for the locals and tend to mop up the kids who can’t crack it at the local school. English private schools build an “English annex” in the community.

Also a strength is the flexibility of the system at secondary level, the focus on social competences, and the fact that (in canton Zug anyway) entry to the academic stream of secondary school (Kanti/Gymnasium) does not depend on an exam, but is more or less a holistic assessment of the child.

Teachers are very open to “partnership” with parents. I also like that repeating a grade has no stigma attached to it (because there is no pass/fail mark for any grade) and that there is no time pressure for kids to race through school.

The weaknesses arise from the strengths, in many instances – the flexibility of the secondary school system means there’s no motivation for a teacher to step out of his/her narrow range of duties to provide additional help for a child that is struggling, or for a child that would flourish with some extra challenges.

In the same way, children with social competence “issues” are all dealt with in the same way – an untidy child is simply not well organized, rather than being differently organized (the test is how messy the desk is, rather than whether the child can actually find the necessary items when called on). So there’s a degree of ticking boxes, rather than truly seeing children as individuals.

In smaller cantons like Zug, where these differences actually cause a child to start sloundering at school, the situation can become very tricky because there are no alternatives in terms of local schooling – you have to move house to move school – the few private schools here often have problems as described above.

In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

I’ll let you know after we’ve crossed the Übertrittsverfahren! (transition phase between primary and secondary school)

I think I would have possibly fought harder to keep up DaZ (German as an additional language) lessons for my son.

Do you have any recommendations for incoming parents regarding local school?

Yes. Inform yourself at EVERY opportunity.
Become, as far as possible, a partner with your child’s teacher (in general you both want the same thing, which is the best for your child). Learn German.

Ask other parents (Swiss and foreign) for advice and input (in particular when it comes to transition to secondary and the different options). Open your mind to the possibilities of the Swiss system and don’t treat the differences only as downfalls – they are not!

If after-school care is important to you, then you need to choose your school and location carefully. Some gemeinden offer subsidised after-school (and holiday) care, others expect you to pay full price.

Any other observations?

I once had an eye-opening experience at an Elternabend (parents evening) when my youngest started KG. By this stage I obviously knew the drill, so I was only half-listening until I heard another (Swiss) parent totally lose it because she just didn’t understand the timetable and the alternating weeks of sport and swimming and how she should possibly remember that. SO it is not only the foreigners who struggle to get a grip on the timetables, the routine and the system.

Therefore, do not be afraid to ask questions, or to make an appointment with your kid’s teacher to get a better understanding of how things are done. The teachers would rather you did this, than that you only enter into communication with them once a situation has escalated through several rounds on miscommunication into a conflict situation.

Also remember that your child didin’t have your upbringing – in many ways, having a different system of grading for tests (A, B, C instead of 6, 5, 4…) freed me from the emotional response I might otherwise have had to test results. So I can be pretty relaxed about 3 or 4 or 5 or whatever because it just means something so different to me! (over time I have learned to be excited by a 6)

(Note from the interviewer: The marking system goes from 6 to 1, where 6 is ‘overachieving’)

Thank you very much for your time and insights!

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