Leadership Skills and the Swiss School System

Note: This is not a normal Evil HR Lady post. And, in fact, I was just going to reply via email because it’s not about HR. But, then I thought it might be of some interest to the rest of you. I find it interesting.

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I recently read your article, Why my child will be your child’s boss. As a teacher, I am fascinated with other cultures’ educational processes. I want to know if you believe what the Swiss do is actually reproducible somewhere else, like the U.S., or only in certain types of communities in the U.S.?  And, how do the Swiss manage cultural issues that contribute to poor educational environments like poverty,  crime, etc.?

These are excellent questions. I’m far from an expert on the Swiss educational system, as I’ve only lived her for 5 years and my child in the Swiss system is in his second year of kindergarten (not because he flunked kindergarten, mind you, but because the Swiss system starts at 4 and kindergarten is two years). I also have a child in the International School of Basel–she’s in 5th grade–so you can see that I’m not 100 percent gung ho about either system.

But here is what I do know. The Swiss are a highly educated people. They speak multiple languages, fluently. If you ask a Swiss person, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”the universal answer is “a little.” A little translates directly to “my grammar is better than yours although your vocabulary beats mine.” If they say “yes” it means they have a PhD in linguistics from Harvard.

In the German speaking area, where we live, the local language is Swiss German–and that’s a different language than High German. (Okay, it’s officially a dialect, but I compare the difference between Swiss and High German to the difference between Spanish and Portuguese. If you speak one you can understand a heck of a lot of the other, but it’s a separate language.) Kindergarten is in Swiss German, although the foreign speaking children are pulled out for High German lessons to help prepare them for future life. My son receives this as well as speech therapy because he didn’t grow up hearing some of the sounds that are used in both Swiss and High German but don’t exist in English. I asked the speech therapist if he could help me as well, and he laughed. I wasn’t joking.

So, these kids spend the first 6 years of their life speaking Swiss German, and then in first grade they immersed in High German. They learn to read and write in High German as, technically, Swiss German isn’t written–although my Facebook Feed says otherwise. And you know what? They learn it. They learn it very well. In 4th grade (don’t quote me on that grade–could be fifth, but I think it’s 4th) they begin French, and English the following year. The Swiss? They know language.

They are excellent at teaching independence. One of the things that my son has to be able to do in order to be advanced to first grade is to get himself to and from school. And by himself, I mean, without parents. The kindergarten is literally across the street from my house, and for the first year of Kindergarten I was the only “close” parent picking up after school. A few others that live up the hill would pick up as well, just because it’s a hill and it’s far. But, those kids have to be able to navigate their way home as well in order to be promoted. I had to get over my American bred paranoia about letting him go by himself, and if he’s not home by 12:03 (because we’re just across the street!), I start to get nervous. The Swiss mothers think I’m ridiculous.

But, there are some dark sides to all that independence. The teachers don’t spend a lot of time monitoring the playground situation. The kids are expected to solve their own problems (great!), but teachers don’t step in when they should (bad!), which means that there is some bullying that goes on that shouldn’t. I’m all for kids solving their own problems whenever possible, but I’m also all for teaching them skills instead of making them figure everything out for themselves.

The other major difference that is difficult for an American to swallow is the tracking of the children. When the kids are in 5th/6th grade they are slotted into 3 different groups. The top group is university bound. They have a very difficult academic road ahead of them, but if they finish they can attend any Swiss university for free. Because English is the language of business–and these kids are the top of top–some of their high school classes are taught in English. Mind you, these aren’t “English as a foreign language” class. These are history and biology and math classes taught, in English. Because they need those skills to be successful in a global economy.

The second group are the good but not spectacular students. This makes up the bulk of the students. They go on a combined academic and apprenticeship path. They start doing (paid) internships at 15ish, working real jobs. It’s a great system and I think it’s fabulous. These kids get real world experience. When they finish school they are absolutely employable. They can go on to college, but not the same universities as the kids in the top group. They can be teachers and nurses and business people, but they can’t be physicians, for instance. That door closes. When you are 12. 12. Think about that.

The last group are the kids that don’t show much academic aptitude. They are also put into apprenticeships, but for blue collar jobs. Now, a blue collar job in Switzerland is not like a blue collar job in the US. You have to take, for instance, painting theory classes, in order to paint houses. Not murals in houses, but white paint on living room walls. The pay is ultimately pretty darn good, although the cost of living is high. For instance, a local grocery store (Aldi’s) was advertising cashier positions starting at 48,000 Swiss Franks per year ($55,000). Yes, Corn Flakes are 6 franks a box,  but you see you can live pretty comfortably at a low end job–especially if you’re a two career couple.

Now, to get to your question–could this be exported? Of course! But there are some basic cultural problems. The Swiss kids are highly independent, it is true. But, my son has come home multiple times with rope burns on his back because there is a rope tied to a platform in his school playground and, well, he’s 5. How many American parents would stand for their child being “injured” at school? The litigious nature of US society means that the offending rope would be removed. Strike one for independence. If I sent my 4 year old (remember, the Swiss kids start kindergarten at 4) to school by himself in the US, Child Protective Services would be on my doorstep threatening to send my child into foster care where some responsible parents would see to it that he was driven to school every day.  Strike 2. What about teachers that don’t intervene (and, in fact, we were told at parent teacher conference that our son needs to learn how to push back against the other kids)? Can you imagine a meeting in a US school where the teacher said, “Another child is picking on your kid, so you need to teach your kid to fight back. Have you thought about karate?” Strike 3. These are HUGE cultural differences. HUGE.

Could that be overcome in a US system? Maybe within an insular community. If you could get everyone in a suburb to agree to not sue when Mikayla or Jaden breaks a leg on the school zip line. If you could get permission for Mikayla to slap Jaden across the face when he’s being a jerk. If you could build your schools in the local neighborhood so they could all walk and then ban the parents from driving, you could start to develop that.

But, the US has different ideas about egalitarianism. We (theoretically) know that all kids are not equal and that some are smarter than others. We *know* that not all kids can hack medical school and that some will be better off in the skilled trades. But, we push every kid towards college. I’m opposed to this, by the way. I think high schools should have a skilled trades path. However, I hate the Swiss assignments at 12. Did I mention 12? Now, technically, you can switch paths, but it’s very difficult. If you go through the middle path, you can go back to school and get the higher high school diploma (the matura), so it’s possible. But the reality is, if you’re a goof off at 12, it colors your whole life.

Do you want to export this system to America? Well, the US already has tiered education, but we are just in denial about it. And we tend to go by neighborhood rather than by individual. Oh you live in the inner city? Stinks to be you! Unless your parents can afford private school! Good luck with that! And that division takes place long before age 12 and is even harder to overcome.

Poverty isn’t a huge issue in Switzerland–because the unemployment rate is so low. Additionally, there’s a movement to provide a minimum income to every adult, regardless of work, in order to keep poverty out. But, there are problems. No doubt. And there are prejudices. One of our first experiences took place when my husband first met with the health insurance consultant to help us pick our health insurance. The conversation went like this:

Health Insurance guy: You should take this higher level plan because otherwise, your wife could end up sharing a hospital room with a Turkish woman!

Husband: <confused> Uh, okay.

Health Insurance guy: TURKISH!!!!!!

Now, truth be told, I don’t want to share a hospital room with a Turkish woman, or a Swiss woman, or an American woman. I want my own hospital room. (Although, I’d rather stay out of the hospital altogether.) But, this was, to the insurance guy, a horrible thing that could happen if you didn’t take the top tier insurance. (We didn’t, by the way. If I land in the hospital, my roommate will be the least of my concerns. We did, however, take the Alpine rescue insurance, because if you don’t have it, and you break your leg on the mountain, you’ll be charged full price for that helicopter. Also, I have no motorcycle coverage and I’m not covered should war break out with Lichtenstein. I presume this won’t be problematic.)

Crime is also low here, but it exists and it’s worse in places like Basel, which is on the border, so it’s easy for people to slip in and out. (Many unmanned borders and they don’t often check passports when you do cross into France or Germany.) But, overall, low crime. The US has lower crime now than it did when I was a child, but higher paranoia.

So to make a long answer sort (too late!) I think some of it should be exported, but it would be a long, difficult road, and require vast cultural changes in the US.

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29 thoughts on “Leadership Skills and the Swiss School System

  1. That was fascinating! Thank you. I have lots of thoughts dashing around in my head, and I’ll get back to you when they’ve cohered into something meaningful, but for now I have to walk the dogs… 🙂

    Still, thanks for posting that, even though it doesn’t strictly fall within your blog’s theme.

    1. Thanks! I read about education a lot, and I figured it might be of interest to others as well.

  2. This was very interesting, especially coming from a school system that’s neither American nor Swiss.

    I am confused about something: “Many unmanned boarders and they don’t often check passports when you do cross into France or Germany.” – All three countries are in the Schengen zone, wouldn’t that mean that passports are *never* checked?

    1. Nope. It means they are rarely checked. I haven’t had my passport checked when crossing in years, but I have a couple of times. Mostly, though, I walk across the border to go grocery shopping, and they don’t bother to stop the walkers.

      I’ve NEVER seen anyone be stopped going INTO France or Germany, but there’s usually at least one stopped car when I’m walked across the border. Most stops are quick passport checks, but sometimes they search your car as well. Mainly they are looking for people smuggling excess stuff in. Prices are MUCH lower in Germany, but there’s a 300 Frank limit per day on import, and otherwise you pay import fees. Plus, you can only bring in 500 grams of beef, for instance. So, they are looking for hamburger smugglers.

      Even with Schengen, the Swiss keep an eye on their borders.

      1. I’ve been watching The Walking Dead lately, so the “they don’t bother to stop the walkers” part made me imagine zombies at the border.

        And thanks for the explanation – for someone who was used to needing a visa for most countries, the first time I traveled through the Schengen area was quite a shock – you mean no one wants to see my passport? (Never been to Switzerland though, so I didn’t know the specifics.)

        1. I just finished the last episode of season 3 last night, so I’m cracking up that I didn’t notice “the walkers” thing. I was a bit shocked at the Governor’s behavior in that episode!

          What was super weird was when we traveled by train from Switzerland, to Berlin, over to Warsaw, and then down to Bratislava and back home, and didn’t show ID once. Love it!

          1. I watched the entire series in a week, and I had finished the last episode 10 minutes before commenting… so I had walkers on my mind.

            My first trip abroad (after Romania joined the EU) was to France, and there was no passport control after we entered Hungary. My mind was blown!

            1. Are you Romanian? We visited Romania in 2010. Until I went I had no idea that large portions of Romania were Hungarian speaking.

            2. Yep! But I’m in Bucharest, there are probably more English speakers than Hungarian speakers here 🙂

  3. I’m just across the border from you in that big Bavarian town 🙂 and this topic has been on my mind quite a bit – would love to hear how you decided to put your older child in international school or any other further thoughts.

    Also – if I had been tracked at 12 like they do here, I would *never* have ended up in my current career in law.

    So I think to answer my own question above, if DS or DD are tracked into something less than gymnasium I would probably try to move them to international school, because i hate the idea of taking away such a huge chunk of their ability to choose!

    1. Well, our decision to put our older daughter into the international school was default. We came her, 5 years ago, on a 2 year contract and the company paid full tuition at the international school. The relocation person didn’t even suggest anything other than the international school.

      So, into the international school she went!

      We talk about moving her–and came really close last year–but decided to keep her where she is.

      With our son, by the time he entered kindergarten, we’d been here 3 years and were pretty much committed to staying for at least a few more years. (Never say never, right?) We wanted to immerse him in German while he was still in the language acquisition phase of life, so we enrolled him in local school.

      We’ve been pleased with how things are going, but we’ll evaluate every year with him too.

      I like that I have options. We can move him into one of the 4 international schools in this area (3 are bilingual, 1 is purely English), if we decide that the Swiss system isn’t working for him.

      There are positives and negatives. Like you, I’m concerned about how I’d react if he didn’t make it into Gymnasium. I hate to limit options so young. But, the other options aren’t bad ones, if you get the right fit. But, it does close doors, and I hate closing doors so young.

  4. Ummm .. parents in the US freak out if their kid didn’t get the same number of valentine’s day cards as everyone else in the class. How would we be able to deal with Precious Sweetums not being able to get into the upper echelon of academic projection?

    1. It’s something we don’t talk about when we talk about education reform–there are huge cultural barriers to making some changes. Like our belief that our children are special snowflakes.

  5. I love everything except that they make that decision at 12. What system is there that makes that decision? Teachers, parents, testing?

    Thanks for the post. I am childless, but very concerned about the American education system (or lack there of) and how much student debt Americans are taking on (like the debt I took on the get an MBA – more than most people’s mortgage). I think it would be awesome if universities in America were free. Period. It works for Germany, doesn’t it?

    1. It does work for Germany, but Germany, like Switzerland, strictly limits who can get in.

  6. I loved your first blog several months ago about the Swiss school system. Would love to see it happen in the U.S. It needs to happen in the U.S. The child who has decisions made for him/her, who doesn’t have to try hard, who has to receive a trophy because someone else received one…these are tomorrow’s job candidates. I have hired them, because they believe strongly in their abilities and accomplishments, only to fire them within the year because they can’t work with others, constantly need their egos stroked, and believe they deserve the raise/promotion/perk just because they showed up for work. As a nation, we are doing them (and us) no favors.

    1. They definitely do give out the hard news early in life, here.

      Constantly telling people that they are awesome results in (duh!) people thinking they are awesome, when, in fact, most of us are just average.

  7. Interesting, indeed! I agree wholeheartedly children have to allowed to solve many more of their own problems than they currently seem to, but I don’t necessarily think, in many U.S. neighborhoods, it would be wise to allow a four year old to walk to school on his or her own. I definitely wouldn’t want the educational tracking at that kind of age. I am one of those who value independence, personal choice, and freedom, and many goof offs at 12 turned into geniuses at 20 (heck that’s about half of the tech gurus and a good percentage of the Einsteins). On the other hand, we do need more options and “apprenticeship” type programs. The “go to college” thing just doesn’t really cut it as the only real option here.

  8. When my children were in school, I think I had every Principal, Vice Principal and a few teachers upset with me. I firmly believe in “fight your own battles” and have taught my children to stand up for themselves. If I had received a call from the school, my first question was who started it? If they said the other child, I would be, ok do I need to pick him/her up? Of course I would have to and have a discussion on what happened. As soon as they would try to say your child needs to learn to walk away, I would say ummm NO my child has been taught to stand up for themselves. If they other child hit first, my child had permission to fight back, no consequences at home. However, if my child started it, they were grounded for the semester!

  9. We enrolled my son into a Montessori Program for preschool and have enjoyed it since it fosters independence much better than with ‘traditional’ day-care or preschool programs but with a good amount of teacher direction. The interesting thing was that we had a lot of explaining to do with our family and peers about encouraging a 1 year old to do things himself. Changing any sort of education system starts with families training families.

    1. It’s a different mindset, that’s for sure! The anthrophosophic (I’ve spelled that wrong!) movement, which Montessori is based on, was founded just up the road from me!

      1. I love the way you discribe our school system. And my congratulations for the courage to send your son in a public school. Most “expats” here live in a parallel world not getting to know anything of our country.
        But with anthroposophy and montessori I must contradict. Maria Montessori was an italian physician who used her knowledge and experience with her working with mentally disabled and “normal” children to invent a method of pedagogy. The central idea is “help me to do it myself”. Rudolf Steiner was an austrian philosopher. He published works by Goethe until he “invented” anthroposophy which is a philosophy including theological and medical subjects. The educational aspects of this made him found the waldorf school (or “Steinerschule”) system. Steiner and Montessori lived in the same timeslot. But apart from this they had probably nothing else in common.

  10. I’m a Turkish woman and as I understand in Swiss system they cannot teach people that racism is a bad thing.

    1. Hmmm, interesting. I’ll have to inquire about that. It wouldn’t surprise me. There is blatant discrimination against the Turkish here. Which, of course, pushes the Turkish further outside society, which makes the Swiss more prejudiced against the Turkish, and the cycle continues.

      Do you live in Turkey? My sister-in-law just moved to Adana, where her fiance is from.

      1. In Europe, this is very common for immigrant society. And yes this is a loop for those people who live together. They sometimes go further and say “You’re not like Turkish people in England/Germany/Swiss…” They think they flatter me by saying that but this is just bullying in world class. So pathetic.

        I live in İstanbul, and she is very lucky to be in Adana. It is warm and full of energic people, and of course food is the best in Adana:)

  11. Well, however. it’s not specific blog post and off-topic but it’s really interesting and few points are valid. Such type posts sometimes give you some relax when you fed up searching and dealing with routine tasks. Keep on.

  12. I just ran across your articles about the Swiss school system and you nailed it. I’m American and raising my kids in Switzerland. I started off doubting the Swiss ways that are different than the US (4 year old with saws, no academics in KG etc). But now that I have experienced it, I am a believer. My brother is a phys ed teacher in the US and can’t believe how capable the kids are here. He said “The only things to survive the end of the world will be cockroaches and Swiss children”!

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