Swiss children could be starting to read and write sooner, if cantonal education authorities have their way.
Plans to change the traditional structure, where parents have the option of sending their children to kindergarten for one to two years, before they start primary school at age seven are already well developed in the cantons of eastern Switzerland.
If the changes go ahead, children could be starting school as young as age five.
Werner Stauffacher, who is general secretary of canton St Gallen's department of education, and regional secretary for the association of education authorities of eastern Switzerland, is a firm supporter of change.
"All the cantons of eastern Switzerland, and the principality of Liechtenstein, are together on this," Stauffacher told swissinfo. "We will be introducing a variety of new models to see what works best, but the basic plan is to have children starting school earlier."
Different learning speeds
But Stauffacher said the main objection to the current system was not that seven was too late to start formal education, but rather that a fixed school entry age did not suit most children.
"Children develop at different speeds," he explained. "Under the new system those who show ability early will be introduced to reading and writing earlier, and may go to school earlier."
"At the same time," he continued, "children who aren't ready won't be pushed into learning. They will be able to stay in the reception class for up to four years if it is thought necessary."
Zurich leading the way
This week canton Zurich's parliament voted in favour of abolishing the current kindergarten system and replacing it with a three year "reception" class, in which children will begin to learn to read and write. The scheme is due to be in place by 2008.
Ernst Buschor, director of education for canton Zurich, believes the new system will provide children with a much smoother entry to school.
"The actual system is not so good," Buschor told swissinfo. "Children go from kindergarten to school, from playing to learning, in a very abrupt way. The new system will be much more natural; it will allow children to move in phases from playing to learning, in a way that corresponds much more closely to their development."
Werner Stauffacher agrees that a more gradual approach to learning is needed during the first years of education.
"We all believe that the current system no longer works," said Stauffacher. "The classic Swiss kindergarten, where reading and writing was forbidden, is completely crazy nowadays."
Opposition to the new system has come from leading members of the Swiss People's Party, and from some parents, who believe that children should not be pushed into learning too early.
"We have heard worries about this," admitted Buschor. "But I really don't think parents need to be concerned. Children like to learn, and the main point about the new system is that they won't be pressured to learn until they are ready. My main concern is more over the parents who are too ambitious for their children and are pushing them too hard."
Retraining for teachers
Although the other cantons of eastern Switzerland have not yet followed Zurich's example and decided on a new model to replace kindergarten, they will be evaluating a series of pilot projects, involving three or four introductory years of school, with the firm intention of choosing the model which suits them best.
"What we are already agreed on," said Stauffacher, "is that from 2003 we will train no more kindergarten teachers. Instead they will be trained as reception class teachers."
Across Switzerland, other regions too are phasing out the kindergarten. In canton Ticino a system similar to that proposed for Zurich has been in place for some years now.
Meanwhile in canton Geneva a new system, which merges kindergarten and the first two years of school came into force last year. Although the initial two "kindergarten" years remain optional, in practice 99 per cent of Geneva children are now starting their education at age four. Parents, knowing that literacy and numeracy skills will be taught in those first two years, are making sure their children are not left out.
The biggest changes therefore will be in German speaking Switzerland, and Ernst Buschor acknowledges that introducing the new system will involve a lot of work.
"It's not just a question of training new teachers, we will have to adapt classrooms, and retrain existing teachers," he said.
Change in law required
The biggest obstacle, however, will be the need to change Switzerland's laws on education. Under current legislation, Swiss children are obliged to attend school for a minimum of nine years, normally starting at between six-and-a-half and seven years old.
Under the new system, they will have to start one year earlier, and the obligatory time spent at school will probably be extended to ten years, bringing Switzerland more into line with the rest of Europe.
Zurich will be the first place to put public support for the new system to the test. The decision by the cantonal parliament to abolish kindergarten will go before voters in the canton in November.
"We have work to do convincing people," Buschor admitted. "But my impression is most parents want the new system for their children, and I'm confident we will get voters' approval."
by Imogen Foulkes