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Parental fines considered for poor show pupils

Teachers complain of students falling asleep in class after watching television until midnight

The city of Basel has moved a step closer to introducing heavy fines for parents whose children regularly come to school sleepy, hungry or with homework not done.

The cantonal government approved an amendment to the Education Act this week that would allow fines of up to SFr1,000 ($863) for the worst serial offenders.

The fine is part of a raft of measures that the canton intends to introduce, making its regulations among the strictest in Switzerland.

The move faces a final vote by Basel City parliament in the spring, which Christoph Eymann, the city's education director, fully expects to pass.

At the moment, parents of school-aged pupils in Basel have one legal obligation – to make sure their children attend school regularly. But under the changes, they would also have to attend parent-teacher evenings and ensure their child is physically ready for the day and with their homework done.

"We often hear from teachers that students fall asleep in class because they watch television until midnight," Eymann says.

"Parents have to make sure that their children are well rested when they attend classes, that they attend regularly, that they are well looked after, and that they are capable of absorbing what they're being taught."

Common goals

The amendment says that in problem cases parents and pupils would first be brought in for a meeting with the school. The next stage would involve parents signing written agreements undertaking to do more. The fines would be a last step, Eymann told swissinfo.

In particular it is the parents who say they do not want to follow the rules who would be targeted. Unfortunately, such parents do exist, Eymann says. And their children can disrupt lessons for other pupils.

He argues that parents who cannot cope, such as those struggling to raise a child on their own, will be supported by the school.

The new thinking is anchored in an idea of better cooperation between parents and schools "to achieve common educational goals". Eymann says the measures are important to guarantee that all children get a good education.

"We want to stop young people joining the ranks of the jobless, in the worst-case scenario. We want to give all children the best chance to fulfil their potential. This is a small tile in the mosaic – other measures also have to be adopted to finish the mosaic," he says.

"We know that this is a huge intrusion into peoples' private lives, but it's a last resort measure. If all else fails, we want to have the option of imposing fines."

Other solutions

But Anna Hausherr, central secretary of the Swiss Single Parents Association, says the proposal is not realistic and parents should not be penalised because of their situation at home.

"It is not really a good solution. It does not really offer the parents the [support] framework that they need," she tells swissinfo.

"Switzerland has an enormous lack of childcare facilities, such as after-hours school programmes and midday meals at school, which most countries have of the same standard of living. That is what should be done first."

She recommends schools set aside time for pupils to do their homework and schools help by providing extra food and drink in the morning in case any children are hungry.

Not all parents have the capacity or time to help their children with homework, she says, adding that it is not always easy to make children eat breakfast before school. Bedtimes can also vary among cultures, and she says it would be better to talk to parents to help them change habits.

"Fines would certainly affect those families that don't have a lot of money," she adds.

Encouragement

Viviane Fenter of the Swiss Federation for Parent Education agrees.

"Penalties have never helped things. It's through encouragement rather than penalties that we can improve the situation," she says.

The fine system is widely used in neighbouring Germany and Austria.

Cantons Bern and Zurich are also discussing ways in which parents can be made to take more responsibility for the performance of their children in school.

The president of the Swiss Teachers Association, Beat Zemp, has welcomed the Basel City move, saying parents may well have a more positive effect on their children than teachers do.

Basel City's parliament will hear from the cantonal Education and Culture Commission in the spring and a decision is expected to follow. With teachers unions backing the move, Eymann says he is "quite sure" it will pass.

swissinfo, Jessica Dacey

In brief

The initiative by the education department of canton Basel City was first put forward in April 2008 and was followed by a consultation process.

It was approved by the cantonal government on February 1 and now is due to reviewed by the cantonal parliament in the spring.

Fines for uncooperative parents are already enforced in several cantons.

Aargau issues fines of SFr600-1,000 to parents who consistently do not attend parent-teacher events. In Appenzell Outer Rhodes parents face fines of up to SFr5,000 for unauthorised absences from school.

In Basel Country, anyone "failing their obligations towards the school" will be fined up to SFr5,000.

Under Zurich law parents are required to send their children "appropriately dressed and equipped" for school and excursions. Contractual agreements with parent are also envisaged.

But the Basel city scheme is the most comprehensive. If parent-teacher meetings fail to produce adequate results, school heads would be responsible for drawing up written agreements under the proposal, which parents would sign. As a last resort, the head of the education department would be responsible for issuing fines of up to SFr1,000.

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