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Schaffhausen keeps French in primary schools

French is to be maintained from the fifth year of primary school Keystone Archive

Voters in canton Schaffhausen have narrowly rejected an initiative that would have prevented French from being taught in primary schools.

This content was published on February 26, 2006 - 15:31

It was the first time that a canton had made a decision on an education issue that has caused widespread controversy.

The initiative was rejected by 51.32 per cent of voters, or 14,222 votes against 13, 492. Voter turnout was 64.2 per cent.

The result means that there is now nothing in the way of English being taught from the third year and French from the fifth year.

Schaffhausen was the first of five German-language cantons to vote on this so-called 3/5 model.

Had the initiative been accepted, early English would have been taught in primary schools rather than French.

The current 5/7 model in Schaffausen and most German-language cantons prescribes the teaching of French from the fifth year and English from the seventh.

Heated debate

The issue has sparked heated debate around the country, with fears that two languages other than German at primary schools would prove too difficult for many children and overstretch teaching resources and budgets.

Voters in canton cantons Zug and Thurgau vote on the issue on May 21, while those in Zurich and Lucerne will have their say at a later date.

Opponents believe the introduction of a third language should be postponed until pupils reach the age of 13 or 14, when they are in secondary school.

Schaffhausen teacher and Social Democrat politician Daniel Fischer saw his political opposition to the so-called 3/5 model founder in the local parliament last year. But he found enough support to force a referendum on the issue this weekend.

He told swissinfo that the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Educational Ministers, which put forward the recommendations in 2004, had not thought the idea through properly.

Mother tongue

Fischer reckons that nearly two thirds of his pupils do not speak High German as a mother tongue, so they are already learning a foreign language when they start school. He argues that many would not cope with another two languages.

He also believes that the extra funds needed to help pupils who are struggling could cost the canton millions of francs.

"It is necessary to find a harmonised way of teaching foreign languages across Switzerland, but not with a bad system," Fischer said. "The harmony that once existed across cantons has disappeared."

The cantonal education ministers' conference is adamant that two foreign languages should be taught in primary school to keep Switzerland competitive on the international job market.

"The 26 cantonal education ministers have found this common accord and also an agreement on the standards they will set for language learning. They all agree on the importance of early language learning in schools," said spokeswoman Gabriela Fuchs.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The 26 cantonal education ministers agreed in 2004 to adopt a policy of teaching two other languages in primary school.
The policy stipulates that one should be English and the other a national language.
The ratification process for the accord is due to start at the end of 2007 and be complete by 2009.

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In brief

It is stipulated in the Swiss constitution (Article 62) that Swiss cantons are responsible for education.

As a result, Switzerland with its 26 cantons and four national languages has 26 different school systems.

The cantons not only differ when comes to the teaching of foreign languages. The age at when children begin school, as well as timetables, teaching plans and holidays vary from canton to canton.

The Swiss will vote on a new education article on May 21. This is intended to give the federal authorities more competences in educational matters.

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