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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: If there’s one thing Switzerland gets right, it’s primary schools

When it comes to primary schools Switzerland has found a winning formula, writes Clare O'Dea although there are a few areas that could be improved upon.

Switzerland gets it right when it comes to primary school. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Switzerland gets it right when it comes to primary school. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

In a few weeks, my youngest child will finish 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. 

READ MORE: How much does it cost to raise a child in Switzerland?

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. 

VERDICT: How to save money when raising children in Switzerland

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.

Member comments

  1. Agree there are some very positive aspects to the Swiss public schools. They did a great job with integration classes for our English-speaking sons as well.
    However, as the parent of a neuro-atypical child, the segregation policy for any disabled children is completely unacceptable and negates the positives. Imagine growing up in a world where anyone who doesn’t behave or look like you is sent “away”. Unbelievable in the 21st century and needs to be seriously addressed.

  2. My kids are Swiss-English, and I loathed the Primary Schools here. Once, my youngest daughter had a dreadful teacher, who’d been in the profession for many years, and was giving 3-4 hours of homework in the first year of school. Frighteningly, we were the only parents to complain about this. Oh, and if she lost a pen or a pencil, this particular teacher had decided that you MUST buy a replacement directly from her. Huh ?!

    Another time, my daughter was telling her teacher (female, in her mid-40s) that my ex-wife was looking a job. Without missing a beat, the teacher replied “Why does she want a job ? She’s a mother, that’s her job.” Oh great, we’re still living in the 1940s, apparently.

    Years later, the same daughter was being taught in upper-school that if you come across someone bleeding or knocked down in the street, don’t touch them or help them. You don’t want to get sued if something goes wrong.

    Sorry, there are many faults with the English schooling that I got, and I don’t have plans to return to England… but I do prefer the way English schools work. Or, we’ve just been really unlucky with bad teachers.

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WEATHER

‘An impossible dream’: Will we come to dread Swiss summer in future?

Switzerland's mild summers are not just idyllic and peaceful, but they're crucial for the country's biodiversity. Clare O'Dea asks whether we will soon speak of the perfect Swiss summer's day in the past tense.

‘An impossible dream’: Will we come to dread Swiss summer in future?

Switzerland is famous for its alpine views but I don’t need a dramatic backdrop for my perfect summer’s day. I just need a quiet place by the water and bearable temperatures. As the second heatwave of summer 2022 hits Europe, it seems inevitable we will soon come to dread this season.

I fear the perfect Swiss summer’s day will soon be spoken about only in the past tense. Before I forget, here is mine. I go to the river within walking distance of my home. There is no entrance gate, no charge and no snack bar, just a stretch of cool, clear water, mostly knee deep, with some pools big enough to swim in. 

EXPLAINED: How melting glaciers are shifting Switzerland’s borders

Nature is a greater presence here than humans. There is plenty of shade. Sitting in a dappled area, I am treated to the sight of a common merganser leading her seven half-grown chicks around from pool to pool. My children are lucky that they can share in this idyllic experience. Will their children have the same good fortune?

Coming from one of the Continent’s cooler climates, I am perfectly happy when it’s 20 degrees in summer. Twenty-five I can live with. But when it’s 30 or 35, I want to escape. The living creatures dependent on the river feel the same. And it’s not just about air temperature. Swiss rivers are also heating up with worrying consequences for biodiversity. 

We hear a lot about the effect of the climate crisis on Swiss glaciers, which are in steady decline and could disappear by the end of the century, causing an array of chain reactions, some foreseeable, some not. 

But what about the rivers? They are equally under threat both in terms of temperature and water quantity. They also rely to a greater or lesser extent on the glaciers for their flow. 

A recent EPFL study led by Adrien Michel found that by the year 2100, average river discharge could decrease by 30 per cent in the mountains and 25 per cent in Swiss lowland areas. 

READ MORE: How 2022 compares to Europe’s hottest summers

That is the most extreme scenario, in which we take no action to curb global warming, and it would also see summer water temperatures increase by 4°C in the Swiss Plateau. The combined effect of warming and water scarcity will have a severe and rapid impact on ecosystems. 

In this high-emission scenario, glaciers would all but disappear. Similar predictions were made the by the government’s Hydro-CH2018 hydrological scenarios (admin.ch) last year.

On the other hand, if CO2 emissions are reduced in line with the Paris Climate Accord, “both Alpine and Swiss Plateau rivers would only be 1°C warmer at the end of the century, and discharge would decrease by 5% in mountain catchments while remaining nearly unchanged in the lowlands”.

Tourist wearing protective face masks stand with the Matterhorn mountain in background at the Gornergrat rocky ridge, 3'089 meter hight, above the resort of Zermatt as heatwave sweeps across Europe on August 8, 2020. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Heatwaves are now a common occurrence in Switzerland. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The goal of the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

We know from the science that a deep transformation is needed to achieve this goal. Transformation must start early and result in major emission reductions even before 2030. That’s just around the corner, yet there is little sign of this happening. 

READ MORE: How to keep your cool during Switzerland’s heatwave

The latest interim report from UN Climate Change, the UN entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change, does not inspire confidence. The results so far have been paltry and the need to increase ambition, to use the UN formulation, is “high and urgent”. 

Adrien Michel, with his focus on rivers, gives an indication of what level of ambition is needed. “Our study of river discharge and temperatures shows, for one, that the impact of global warming is inevitable, and that we must begin making changes today, through energy and agriculture policies, for example. It’s also showing us that we can still save a part of our environmental heritage – but only if we act swiftly and aggressively.”

Do you see anything swift and aggressive coming out of the Swiss political system? I don’t. Nor do I see my own behaviour changing enough. Part of the problem is that the enormity of the issue breeds denial or apathy. Responsibility is spread too thin, a version of the bystander effect. 

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland’s largest cities are combating the heat

In Andri Snær Magnason’s climate crisis book On Time and Water he talks about how the impact of our lifestyle, the fire we are stoking, is invisible and that we therefore do not perceive our everyday disasters. 

“It would be instructive if everyone had to store the oil barrels they use, if we saw the world that way. Our family’s trips abroad over the last ten years amount to a hundred barrels of oil.”

More often than not, I don’t walk to my precious river, I drive. In fact I drive short trips almost every day that could be done on foot, by bicycle or by public transport. Our family will also burn through some barrels later this summer on unnecessary flights.

As I receive another heatwave warning on my phone, and plan to avoid going outdoors for another day, I wonder how long it will be before these unwelcome temperatures become the norm and the perfect summer’s day spent by a cool, clear river will be an impossible dream.

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