Sometimes it’s not the pupils causing teachers headaches – it’s their demanding parents. The Federation of Swiss Teachers has drawn up a guide with advice for dealing with what is becoming an increasing problem.
In the past, parents mostly unconditionally supported decisions made by teachers and schools, writes Beat W. Zemp, the federation’sexternal link president, in the foreword to the guide.
But working with parents has become “much more complex and sophisticated” and conflicts can arise that can be very stressful and last years. “The media is dominated by cases involving ‘helicopter parents’ who bring along their lawyer to the first parents’ discussion or when conflict arises for religious reasons,” he said.
International comparisons, such as from the OECDexternal link, suggest that the problem is not yet as acute as in English-speaking countries, for example.
But the issue is of sufficient concern to prompt the federation, which represents the German-speaking part of Switzerland, to publish a guide on cooperation between schools and parents, the contents of which were flagged up by the newspaper, SonntagsBlickexternal link, last month.
The 52-page guide, which updates the 2004 original, features examples of cases as well as the educational and legal aspects – and lists key points for teachers on how to diffuse conflict and what support they can expect.
Among the featured cases are parents who complained their daughter’s homework was unreasonable and a parents’ school council even demanded that homework be abolished because it caused ‘too much tension’ at home.
Parent pressure examples
“Many parents think they have the right to have a say in everything that happens in school,” Sarah Knüsel, president of the Swiss Union of School Principals in Canton Zurichexternal link, told SonntagsBlick.
“Even the smallest things are queried,” agreed Georges Raemy, Knüsel’s counterpart in canton Zugexternal link: some parents don't agree with a day trip into a forest; others feel a birthday hasn’t been marked well enough.
“Teachers are increasingly called on to explain themselves. Communication has become key,” he said in the article. For Raemy, communication should take on a more prominent role in teacher training.
A real minefield is when a child fails to get the grades to get into gymnasium, the Swiss senior high school needed to go into university. This can result in threats of legal action. Although in most cases it stays at threats, the legal services of cantonal educational authorities – cantons are in charge of education in Switzerland – are reporting a rise in enquiries from schools and parents on legal issues.
At the canton of Zurich service there are around 3,000 enquiries a year, of which around 400 were from parents, its head Marion Völger told SonntagsBlick.
Christian Hugi, of the Zurich Schoolteachers’ Unionexternal link, puts the rise in problem parents down to people having less respect for state institutions. Parents themselves are also under pressure through globalisation, digitalisation and the competitive work market. “Parents want to make sure that their child can survive in this world,” Hugi explained.
Parental pressure is a phenomenon affecting many industrialised countries. The OECD’s PISA reportexternal link, a look at 15-year-old pupils’ performance in developed countries, in 2012 asked school principals how much pressure they were receiving from parents over high academic performance.
It found that, on average across OECD countries, 21% of students were in schools whose principals reported pressure by many parents and 46% were in schools with pressure from a minority of parents.
Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia were among the countries in which there were at least one in three students in schools deemed highly pressured by parents. In Singapore, it rose to 60%.
Switzerland was among the countries with fewer than 10% of students in such schools, along with neighbours Germany and Austria and traditionally strong PISA performer - although it has slightly slipped of late - Finland.
Beat A. Schwendimann, board member of the Federation of Swiss Teachersexternal link, pointed out that PISA data suggests that there was no clear correlation between parental pressure on schools and academic performance. This was evidenced by Finland’s low parental pressure score – and by Switzerland’s, which also does consistently well in PISA.
“The low reported levels of pressure by parents on school principals can be interpreted by a high level of trust parents put in the school system and the high professional standards of teachers. Pressure by parents on principals, including legal action, is rare and mostly related to final exam grades relevant to advancing to a higher school level. Swiss schools strive to establish and maintain an active and productive partnership with parents,” Schwendimann told swissinfo.ch in email comments.
A productive cooperation based on trust and communication, rather than pressure, should be the goal, he said.