Created by and for expats, Swiss schools abroad are being encouraged to become more international and increase their autonomy. A new law, set to be discussed in parliament, is designed to improve the schools’ competitiveness.
“I’m Spanish with Spanish parents. When I passed my secondary school exams, which were written in German, I could speak five languages,” said Marta Porta Comin, a walking advert for the Swiss School Barcelona.
Now studying physics and maths at university, she explains – in excellent German – how she was taught in Spanish and Catalan at nursery school and then German, French and English.
On July 10, she was invited to Glarus in eastern Switzerland to attend the annual conference of directors of Swiss schools. In front of around 100 people, she proved that her former school deserves the “best practice” label in the teaching of languages.
Another example can be found in Bangkok, which teaches the canton Lucerne curriculum.
“Compared with our five public secondary schools [in Lucerne], the level of English of the pupils in Thailand is definitely better,” said Jürg Lustenberg, the cantonal representative.
Languages are the trademark of Swiss schools in countries less focused on multilingualism. So despite the financial crisis, the Swiss school in Milan isn’t having to do away with its waiting list – on the contrary.
“Many parents want their children to learn German to guarantee a better professional future,” said Claudio Burkhard, the school’s director.
“This requires a large sacrifice – both financial and cultural – because the child has to begin in nursery school.”
Derrick Widmer, president of Education Suisse, the association for the 17 Swiss schools abroad, says the schools were created precisely so that children of expatriates could keep their language and culture while integrating into the new country.
“What’s more, it’s much easier learning a language when you’re young,” he said.
In addition, Widmer campaigns against computer illiteracy. “Unlike what happens in Switzerland, we think IT lessons belong in the curriculum and that pupils should – from nursery school on – be able to program.”
He favours innovation concerning schools because the global competition is rapidly heating up.
“More and more international schools are being built. We still have an excellent image and remain well positioned, but competitiveness has to be increased in order to attract new pupils. That should happen as a result of the new law, which could enter into force in 2015 if all goes well.”
Swiss schools abroad
The 17 Swiss schools teach in German, apart from the school in Bogotá, Colombia, which uses French.
The oldest schools are those founded in Italy for German-speaking expats.
French-speaking expats – less numerous – have not felt this need because France has had an academic network in place around the world for a long time.
The law foresees not only relaxing the current requirement that 20 per cent of students be Swiss, but also the possibility of creating dual vocational training schemes (apprenticeships) and, above all, the opening of new schools.
“It will be possible in future to receive financial help to open a new establishment. But to do that, one will have to match what is offered by the international competition – such as gyms and swimming pools – because local parents have demands and expectations in this area. Money will have to be found,” Widmer said.
He bets on Asia. “We don’t have much a presence there – there’s work to be done. The schools in Bangkok and Singapore are working well. They’re attracting many people who are paying close attention to dual vocational training, because apprenticeships don’t exist in those countries.”
In the beginning, all the schools were founded by the Swiss communities – often in a somewhat informal, unstructured way. This was the case, for example, in Bangkok 50 years ago.
“Swiss expats invited a couple of teachers over from Switzerland, who started out in a small wooden house with 17 pupils,” said Dominique Tellenbach, the new director of the school, which today teaches 200 pupils, of whom 60 are Swiss, in a large modern building.
Another example is the Swiss school in Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, which was founded ten years ago.
“The Swiss community asked one of their number to give German lessons to six children. Today, our school has 70 pupils,” explained director Loretta Brodbeck.
Widmer said that was all very well, but hard work was needed to maintain or create a place in a globalised and internationalised world.
“Unlike Swiss state schools, the Swiss schools abroad are supported by Switzerland but are private. A director of these establishments is not only an educator but also the head of a private company. He or she is responsible for the finances, marketing and talking to parents.”
Innovation will therefore have to intensify, according to the Swiss government, in order to “sell” institutes, by offering an international standing while at the same time promoting “the cultural influence of Switzerland abroad”.
Education Suisse is the new name, given in 2012, for the former supervisory committee for Swiss schools abroad, which was founded in 1942.
The association comprises 17 establishments: seven in Europe, eight in Latin America and two in Asia. There are a total of 7,200 pupils, of whom 1,800 are Swiss.
Each school receives financial and teaching assistance from a Swiss canton, whose curriculum it teaches.
Education Suisse also represents the schools’ interests concerning PR, the economy and the Swiss authorities. It liaises with schools in Switzerland and is responsible for assessing synergies with local schools as well as the possibilities of opening new schools.
It administers social insurance (pension, old age) for Swiss teachers and pays insurance premiums.
Every summer, Education Suisse organises a conference for those responsible for Swiss schools abroad. This year it was held in the Glarus cantonal parliament from July 8-11.
(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch