The Swiss School System with Margaret Oertig, Episode 2

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Who We're Speaking With

In this episode we welcome back Margaret Oertig, to continue the conversation about schools in Switzerland.

In our first call together, we covered what’s different about the Swiss school system, what is taught at Kindergarten, getting ready for secondary school, common issues that incomers sometimes find challenging, the different paths available in the Swiss school system, the apprenticeship system, the selection criteria for the Swiss school system, a little bit about the Gymi and quite a bit more besides.

Among other things, today we’ll be covering tertiary education in Switzerland, university entrance requirements, the provisions for children with special needs or for gifted children and how to work together with the school.

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Daniel: Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of the Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland.

This is a series of conversations in which we speak with people who could be considered experts on different aspects of life in Switzerland and share what we learn with you.

The series is brought to you by Rigby. We're a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich.

If you or anyone you know of is looking for a new role in Switzerland or if you're looking to hire, let us know, we'd be happy to help.

The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch.

In today's episode we would like to continue the conversation with Margaret Oertig about schools in Switzerland.

Margaret is the author of the brilliant book Going Local, Your Guide to Swiss Schooling.

She also worked for 20 years for the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, lecturing, writing and working on projects related to intercultural collaboration and delivering intercultural training programmes to international companies.

In our first call together we covered all kinds of things from what's different about the Swiss school system, what's taught at kindergarten, getting ready for secondary school, some common issues that incomers face, the different paths available in the Swiss school system, the apprenticeship system, the selection criteria for the schools, and a little bit about the Gymi. Among other things, today we'll be covering tertiary education in Switzerland, university entrance requirements, the provisions for children with special needs or for gifted children, and how to work together with the school. So Margaret, welcome back!

Margaret: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Daniel: Okay, great. So, can we begin with talking about tertiary education? What are the three types of tertiary education in Switzerland?

Margaret: You’ve got the traditional universities. About 20% of the population start those and perhaps about 15% complete them.

You've got universities of applied sciences, which I think is similar to what we used to call technical colleges, but they've got, you know, various specialities. They've got more of a practice focus and they lead to a bachelor's degree as well and there are also master's programs. Internationally they are universities, but in Switzerland when you say “Fachhochschule”, they say it's not university, but internationally they are. I have to say ‘I was a university lecturer’ if I'm talking in English when I'm abroad.

And then there's universities of teacher education that also can be considered “Fachhochschulen,” but some people consider it as a separate one again. And then there are colleges of higher education, “Höhere Fachhochschulen,” and they're definitely not universities. It's not a bachelor's degree, although they are working towards being given the right to award professional bachelor's degrees, but they're not there yet. And that takes three years part-time or two years full-time.

So these are the four main types. In the College of Higher Education, one of the things you can do there is an “Eidgenössische Berufsprüfung,” a federal diploma of higher education, but you can also do that in the workplace and attending more similar to night classes or maybe Friday/Saturday classes. And higher than that is an advanced federal diploma. And this is where you start to see that maybe bachelor's and master's aren't everything because if you have this advanced federal diploma, for example, you could have the diploma in tax that you're a tax expert, and you could be, you know, one of the top people in the country on the tax system, or you could be a photographer, or an energy and efficiency advisor. You're usually a specialist that you've really got a unique proposition to offer people that you've got very specialised training. But it isn’t this kind of more traditional bachelor's, master's type program.

Kathrin: So maybe I can just explain my experiences a little bit. I actually attended two types of these universities. I started out by attending the University of Bern and studying biology. I did that for a year and after that I switched to a university of teacher education.

So maybe one thing to emphasise with Swiss universities that sets them apart from other countries is that you choose a course of study from the very first year. So in some countries like the US, you can sort of try different things in your first year of university. But in Switzerland, you choose a very definite course of study, and you can't really change that unless you start again. So a lot of people actually, they do what I did, which is they start with one thing and after a year, they transfer and they almost add a year and do something else.

Maybe with traditional universities in Switzerland, it's important to understand that they have, like other traditional universities, they have large lectures often combined with other majors. So for example, in biology, we had in the first year some lectures together with vet students. So that means that classes can be extremely big, like two, 300 people or more.

Margaret: Yes, it's a bit anonymous, isn't it?

Kathrin: Oh, yes. So it's not, there's no real personalised attention and the lecturers might not know you. What you also have, of course, is practicals from your first year. So you get to go out into your field and get your first experience. Maybe for us it was in the local gardens in Bern. So we did get to go out in the field.

In the Pädagogische Hochschule, so the teacher training University, it is quite different. You start by choosing a level if you want to do primary, secondary or upper secondary. I did secondary and so I had to choose three subjects to teach. If you do primary, you kind of teach all subjects because it's not as specific. And we did have some large lectures with all the levels together, but a lot of our training was in very small classrooms with maybe 15 to 20 students. So it was a lot more personalised, especially you really get to know your teachers in your subject. For example, all the English teachers, I studied English as a second language as one of my three specialised subjects. And I did know the names of all the teachers and they knew my name and it was quite personal.

Like in the University of Bern, the General University, there's a big focus on practical training from an early stage. I went out at the time I was only 19. And I went out to do my practical training. And the ninth graders were about 15. So, you know, it's very interesting that you get to start at such an early age to teach.

Maybe a final thing to say about the PH, so the teacher training schools, is that they have a lot more mature students as well. So people who laterally transferred because there's a bridge here program, so people can come from apprenticeships or those who have already worked in a first career. So you do get many mature students there.

Margaret: Yeah, I think this is quite interesting. I was having a look at the, you know, the more recent statistics on how old are people when they start. And I think for the traditional universities, the average age to start is 20. Whereas say in the UK, that might have been 18 even. Yeah, and people often only get their bachelor’s at the age of 24 to 25. So they're actually taking four to five years to get their bachelor's. It could be because they change their subject, they go to a different subject. And it could also be that they just take longer because they're working at the same time, so they're actually building their work experience. They're not just sitting, studying all the time.

Average age for the masters in a traditional university is about 27. And I remember my daughter went for an interview in a law firm at 25 after getting her masters, and they said, "Why are you so young?"

(laughs)

Whereas in the UK, you could have done that by the time you were 23, you know? So 27 was a very typical age for a masters. And then the university of applied sciences, that’s interesting because the age is even older. The average starting age is 23 and the age to get your bachelors’ is [KS1] about 27.

So I think this is also something for parents to keep in mind in terms of this thing. It's not a race. The whole system is designed to actually go quite slowly. And because people don't always get what is going to happen in their course, they quite often change or they discover they don't like it so much and then they go to something else in a different course.

Kathrin: Okay, so let's now talk about the university entrance requirements in Switzerland. What are the requirements?

Margaret: If you take traditional universities to start with, you need to get the Gymnasiale Matura, the maturity from the Kantonsschule, the Lycee, whatever, and that's the basic, the most typical way to go. And to get that, it doesn't matter what marks you get, you just have to pass, if you say there's roughly 12 subjects, it varies a bit, you have to pass 10 of your 12 subjects. And the two that you fail, you have to double compensate. So the pass mark is four. So let's say for maths, you only get 3.5, you need to have another subject where you get 4.5. So you've got to do a bit of extra work somewhere else.

So a lot of the pupils are calculating, where will I not bother to work very much because I need to really focus on this subject that I'm likely to fail, 'cause if they fail too many, they would not get the qualification.

So I think in the last podcast, I said, you know, it's very tough. I wouldn't have managed it. What I do tend to forget is that in my school, we were focused on getting good grades in all of our four subjects or whatever. Whereas here they're just focused on a minimal pass of everything. Some people are focusing on more, but they don't need to.

And you can go to university and study economics if you failed maths. You know, the universities are not looking at your marks. They're just looking at you've got the bit of paper. It's like a driving license, you know, it's you have the bit of paper or you haven't.

There's other ways in through what they call “Passerelle,” through entrance exams. They usually, if you go to the university website, you'll get lots of information about other possibilities.

So the important thing to know for the Universities of Applied Sciences, they often need work practice before you can get in. If, for example, you're studying business, then you will need to have done a year's work experience, forty-eight weeks. And that's quite hard to fit in within one year. So that's one of the reasons people start later, that they may be over two years, they're doing this one year's work experience.

I think for engineering, IT, business, you need just one year's work experience. For some of the other topics like social work, you would have had to have worked for one year doing general work and also doing some six months of social work-based or some kind of social activities.

Again, you look at the website of the place you're interested in and see what the requirements are, but you cannot assume, apart from traditional universities, you can't assume that you walk into a University of Applied Sciences and just start immediately after finishing school. It doesn't work that way.

So the interesting thing about Swiss university is if you come from abroad or you come from a private school, you only need six subjects to get in. And this is something that's quite unfair for the locals, Swiss pupils that have been in the, you know, the public schools. You only have to have six rather than the full 12. For example, they don't think that you should need to have three languages, two languages would be enough. Things like that. And that's good to keep in mind.

And Swiss Universities website gives you a lot of information on this. You can come from abroad or you can come from a private school in Switzerland and still get into Swiss university with six subjects.

Daniel: And moving on, one question that I wanted to get your opinion on. If during primary or secondary school, a family would like to speak with the school about a topic, what would be the best way to approach that? What would be the best way for parents to work together with the school?

Margaret: Yes, I think making an appointment is the best way. There is very little informal contact, you know, just through dropping the kid off, because they don't really want to see you even in the school playground, playground, never mind the school classroom. So you don't have informal contact naturally, so it's better to make an appointment to see the teacher if there's something coming up.

Or if it's something small, you can also write email or phone. I think it's good to ask what the teacher prefers. Some teachers might want to just talk on the phone, others might want to do email. So ask how they would like to communicate. Sometimes you've got these kind of notebooks for messages back and forwards and you can check the notebook every day and see if the teacher has written anything to you. That can be quite efficient for low-key things. You could just write a question.

But I find it quite good, we used to, in primary school because I didn't understand the system, we used to just make an appointment somewhere into the autumn term around about October. I would just say ‘could we have a meeting with you just to chat,’ or maybe September, I don't remember anymore, but you know just to chat about how our daughter's getting on.

And things came up through that, like the teacher said in the second class, she's reading very quietly. She's afraid of making mistakes. She won't speak up when she's reading. And the teacher was worried about this that she would develop some kind of complex through it.

And then the next thing was the teacher gave them all a double page to read, to practice reading at home. And I think that was deliberate partly so my daughter wouldn't worry about making mistakes. And then I practiced it with her in the living room, first of all. She read it out to me and then I sent her to the hall or I went to the hall and then she read it again and then we were between the bedroom and the living room and then between the balcony and the bedroom, and she was shouting across the house with this, you know, the bit of reading.

And then when she went into school, the teacher took them all separately into a different room, recorded everybody reading and nearly jumped out of her skin when our daughter yelled her texts. So kind of cured her and it was like teamwork in that sense that you know, the teacher, but it was only because we asked for an appointment that that just came out.

So I think sometimes if you just ask for an appointment, or if you feel your child's not very happy at school, maybe you can, you know, just discuss and ask the teacher, how do you think things are going?

Daniel: So kind of pro proactively ask for an appointment, even if there aren't any specific issues to discuss?

Margaret: I think so, if you're not understanding the system very well, if you just want to get a feel for how things are going. It's kind of an alternative to the informal chats on a regular basis.

Kathrin: During your appointment, how should you communicate about your child?

Margaret: I think it's important to treat the teacher as an expert, to ask questions. Also important not to be emotional. If you've got, say you have got something you're worried about, if you express a lot of emotion, people may think you can't think straight.

It's better to show rationality, show that the wheels are turning. You can still be definite, but show the wheels are turning as you think, that you're carefully considering what they're saying. This is a very cultural thing. There are some cultures where if you don't show emotion, it looks as if you don't care, but in Switzerland, it's more that you've got the ability to think things through rationally if you're not expressing too much emotion.

Also talk very concretely about how your child's performing now. It doesn't work in Switzerland to say my child has tonnes of potential. They're not looking at that. They're looking at evidence. So potential doesn't count if it's not evidenced.

And it's also important not to have a competitive approach. This is the irony because it actually is a competitive system. Because as we've discussed last time, you know, there are these different types of schools that your child will go into in secondary. But it's important not to look competitive, that you're looking at what the child's able to do and what's best for the child with their ability.

And I think it's still fine to say that you have additional information that you can give the teacher. You know, you're also a partner in this, even if less of an expert in the education field.

So you can maybe tell the teacher things that from your perspective, let's say at the moment she's coming home and she seems to be upset at lunchtime, or whatever, you might also discover that a teacher is speaking Swiss German instead of high German. Maybe one of the teachers that they're involved with and the child isn't understanding that would be very important to communicate. But very matter-of-factly: yes she's not actually understanding or  whatever because he's speaking Swiss German and she really doesn't understand Swiss German something, like that that you just give input or if you know there are problems with classmates that, you know, you can provide complementary information to what the teacher already knows.

Daniel: And here's something: how about if you if you would like to appeal a school decision, so maybe the child's placement in a particular group or their marks or their grades? Is there a way that you would go about doing that in particular?

Margaret: Yeah, it is a legal procedure. And there are types of decisions that actually considered legal decisions and that includes like marks or, you know, recommendations for the next level of school. And you would ask the teacher or the head teacher who the appeal should be made to and then have it, put something in writing.

It's great that we have DeepL now that you can write your text in English and put it through a translation tool, and then they will have to consider, formally consider, your appeal.

And I think Kathrin, you had an example of that where someone in Canton Zurich, I think it was in primary school, near the end of primary school, the parent wasn't happy with the mark the child had been given and appealed the mark, and they did, they won their appeal. They managed to have the mark raised through that.

But in many cases the teachers will have a lot of evidence, a lot of written, you know, they make a lot of notes on what the children, the work they're doing, what they're producing, they have got, usually they can back up their decisions, so it's not just a kind of think of a number and write it down, there is a lot of work that goes into the decision making, so you know, it doesn't necessarily work.

Kathrin: So maybe one other thing to cover is the provisions for special needs children. So a lot of children, maybe they have dyslexia or ADHD. And how does the Swiss school system cater to that?

Margaret: Nowadays, as much as possible, kids with special needs are in the main classes and they have additional classroom assistance if something has been formally recognised as necessary, it also can be informally. So it may be paid for by the ‘Gemeinde’ or the canton if they need extra classes and if there's a diagnosis and some teachers are finding this very difficult because they've got so many different special needs within a class and it's being much criticised. Some schools are now changing back to having small special classes within their building, and there also are special schools if the child really needs a lot of extra help.

So this is something that's in flux at the moment, and you have classroom assistants, and then you have specialists, you know special needs educators as well and as an example ADHD, so it's in English with D for ‘disorder,’ in German it would be ADHS.

It's very common and it's actually diagnosed via child psychiatric services at the cantonal hospital. For example, you would contact your local, your cantonal hospital, or could be via paediatrician if you can't get access to a hospital. It's not diagnosed through the school psychologist. And then the child could get, for example, behavioural therapy and medication, but also have classroom assistance prescribed.

And if you have a few kids in a class with classroom assistance, then the person offering it will be there for more hours per week and will be doing some kind of work with them.

I think Kathrin, you yourself have some knowledge of this, how that type of thing works. They call it ‘Interne Förderung’. How does that work in a classroom?

Kathrin: Yeah, so in many cantons there's something it's called IF, so either Interne or Integrative Förderung, so integrative support. And basically it's a special educational needs teacher who goes into the classes.

So in a whole school, there might be one or two of these teachers and they're split between classes. So they do three different things. Usually if there's a child who needs very specific help, they might do one-to-one sessions.

So either have the child maybe in primary where they start school a little bit later, they might have the child come in an hour earlier and work with them extra or take them out of the class for an hour.

Sometimes also the teacher goes into the classroom, so they might split up the groups, choose a few children who are struggling with a certain concept and work with them, you know, maybe two or three-to-one to help them understand better, or even just assist the regular teacher inside the classroom with the whole group. Maybe if the teacher is explaining, go around the classroom, help those who are struggling. And this actually is called teamteaching. And it's quite common in many areas, for example, in Bern, it's used quite a lot.

Maybe another thing to mention is that these IF teachers, they do support the children, but they also advise the parents. So for example, they'll fill out reports. If the child is struggling and they have a certain recommendation, they're going to fill out a report and then submit that, and then the parents can either talk to the teacher or act on whatever the advice is.

Maybe sometimes the advice is repeating a year. That would be quite an extreme measure if the child is really struggling. Usually they'll try to keep them with their class group, but they might reduce their learning outcomes. So students, this is called RLZ, so reduced learning goals compared to the rest of the class.

And also in many cantons there's a special program at the beginning. So if a child is a little bit maybe not quite ready at the beginning of their schooling, they can do the first grade in two years. And the IF teacher will recommend and collaborate with the regular teacher and the parents to set that up.

Daniel: Okay. How does the Swiss school system cater to gifted children?

Margaret: It depends on the degree. The teaching books usually offer activities with a range of difficulty that the teachers can then use some of the activity types with gifted pupils, so they are pushed a bit more than the others. And children can choose their own activities in the classroom that they're maybe all working on different things.

I know that sometimes the child can say I want to do the more difficult activity or the easier one, they can choose themselves, what they feel able for, and that they, if they are very gifted, they can be assessed by the school psychological services. For example, in Canton Zurich, there's even Talenta, a private school for gifted kids in primary level up to the age of 12, and they can go to a special school.

But in many cases they try to manage it within the classroom. There is quite a lot of different activities going on at the same time in the classroom. I think my younger daughter was very good at maths and they just had her doing more complicated things. So she wasn't moving ahead, it's not a case of, you're actually somewhere different and you're really doing the work that will come later. It's more they, you know, give a different version of the same type of activity that's more challenging.

It's important that children shouldn't move too fast through the system because you may end up with an eight-year-old in among ten-year-old. They don't like that because they might be required to then organise their own homework, that they get homework for the whole week and the kids are managing it and turning up a week later with all their homework. And if you've got someone two years younger, they might just emotionally, psychologically, not be ready for that.

So I think that's something that it's important that the child doesn't move ahead into higher class. And for the same reason, it can be better not to be the oldest person in the class. Because you can be intellectually very capable, but perhaps emotionally, not more than others.

Kathrin: And I have some personal experience with this because I went to school a year earlier. So I was six and all the kids in my class were seven. And in the first grade, I happened to have a teacher who really emphasised empathy and sharing. And so she would, you know, check which child is happy to go without or which child is happy to sort of sacrifice for the others. And I never did. I always wanted to have whatever it was, maybe if she was offering chocolates. I didn't, you know, I wasn't very good at sharing yet at that age.

And years later, I learned that the age between six and seven, the brain makes a big jump in that regard. And so all the other children maybe were a little bit more able to do that at that age. And I wasn't so I did have a disadvantage there, not intellectually, but just in terms of.

Margaret: I think that's, yeah. Yeah, it's, I suppose, social, actually, you know, kind of social development skills, yeah. And I think they're quite strong in that here.

Daniel: Remind me not to share my chocolate with you, Kathrin.

Kathrin: Yes, some things haven't changed, but I am a bit better now.

Daniel: Okay, well, there's lots of things to think about there, Margaret. Thank you. And do you have any final thoughts that you would share with families as they embark on this adventure with their children in the Swiss schooling system?

Margaret: I think a couple of things. One of the things I noticed was that sometimes you can get really good information from academic journals, from publications. I typed in ‘ADHS in English, Switzerland, Measures’ or something like that. And I got this really good article from 2023 describing a study on how it's diagnosed and what the treatments are. So it's kind of like weird because it's a lot of details. If you're really interested in lots of information about how Switzerland manages different educational situations, you actually can sometimes find it in international journals, you know, they'll often give an overview of the whole country.

And then you've got to find out what exactly happens in your canton. But it gives you a better insight.

And just one other thing regarding communication. I think we have a tendency to think, coming from other countries, that we're consumers of education and the Swiss tend to see it more as it's like when you go to the doctor, that you're actually not the expert when you go into the doctor's surgery.

You can give a lot of information about your experience, but you do have a certain respect. And I think there is still that bit more respect, perhaps teachers wouldn't agree, but a bit more respect for teachers as professionals, a bit similar to medical professionals.

And keep that in mind that you're kind of a partner, providing information to someone who is qualified and who is a professional.

Daniel: Well, I think we'll have to leave it there for now, but we've covered a lot. Hopefully, some of that will be of value to some of the listeners. I believe it will be.

Thank you very much, Margaret, for joining us. It's been really interesting.

Margaret: Thank you very much for inviting me. It's been very nice.

Daniel: All right. That'll do it for today. So thanks once again to Margaret for joining us and to you for listening. We'll include links in the show notes to Margaret and to her book and to further materials about some of the topics that we've spoken about today.

Once again, this podcast was brought to you by Rigby. We're a staffing and IT services company here in Zurich. If you would like our help either to hire or to be hired, let us know. Best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch. So thanks and until the next time.