Schools must adapt to changing times

Swiss schools are to renew their emphasis on literacy Keystone

Education bosses are set to launch a series of studies to find out why Switzerland's schoolchildren have poor literacy skills.

This content was published on March 7, 2002 - 15:21

They announced that five studies would take place this year to determine why Swiss schoolchildren's reading and comprehension skills were behind those in other leading industrialised countries.

Debate over literacy skills has been raging since an international study in December concluded that Swiss pupils were below average.

The study, by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found up to 20 per cent of 15-year-olds could not understand even the most basic written information.

The findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shocked the educational establishment, and put pressure on cantonal educational directors to come up with solutions.

"The standards in literacy are disappointing," said Erich Ramseier of Canton Bern's education authority. "Switzerland is not in a position to be content with average or below average educational standards. An educated population is one of our greatest resources."

The Pisa report revealed big gaps in educational standards between Swiss students from higher and lower social backgrounds, and between pupils who spoke a Swiss national language as their mother tongue, and those who did not.

Failing to adapt

Urs Moser of Zurich University's Institute for Educational Research believes the Swiss school system has failed to adapt to the high proportion of foreign children now in the classrooms.

"In a way the system has failed these children," Moser told swissinfo. "Not the individual schools, but the system. Switzerland simply has no solution for schools with a difficult mix of pupils, such as those where more than half the children speak a foreign language as their mother tongue."

However, Erich Ramseier warns against making foreign students the sole cause of Switzerland's poor showing in literacy.

"Other countries which took part in the Pisa report, such as Australia, had high standards of literacy, despite also having a large immigrant population;" Ramseier explained.

"And if you remove the foreign students from the equation in the Swiss case, the Pisa study still only gives us an average rating in literacy, which is not really good enough."

Strong in maths

Traditionally Switzerland has always achieved good results in mathematics, and Ramseier believes the literacy skills may have been somewhat neglected.

"Pisa shows us that we have a fairly big discrepancy between literacy and numeracy skills," he said. "So it's possible mathematics has been over represented."

Swiss teachers too have been asking themselves what conclusions they should draw from the findings of the Pisa report.

Enrique Gerber teaches German to 13- and 14-year-olds at a school in Belp near Bern. He agrees that more support is needed for teachers who have large numbers of foreign children in their classes.

"But it's not just a language problem," he explained. "We have many children who come from former Yugoslavia, or from Somalia, and they have been through some terrible situations - they are suffering from war trauma."

"Someone who is suffering from war trauma can't concentrate on learning," he continued. "I am not a social worker, I have no training in how to deal with these children. We need much more support in this area."

High German versus dialect

Gerber also points to the fact that Swiss German children speak dialect at home, but then learn High German at school, as one possible reason for the low standards in literacy.

"High German is in fact a foreign language for them" he said. "And this is important, it could certainly affect their literacy; they speak one language at home and another at school."

Erich Ramseier also thinks this could be a factor. "It's true the German-speaking part of Switzerland is in a very special situation," he said. "But it is a challenge we have to deal with."

Urs Moser disagrees. "I don't think the dialect issue is the reason for the Pisa results. All these children watch television, they are well acquainted with the standard form of German."

More money

For teachers like Enrique Gerber, the issue boils down to a question of resources. "If I could tell the education ministers what I wanted, I would say we need more money and more support in the classroom. We shouldn't be cutting back on learning support for children with problems.

"If things don't change, in a few years we won't have enough teachers. But the politicians haven't realised this yet. We will have very big problems soon unless something is done."

Erich Ramseier agrees that the need to address the changing situation in the classrooms is now urgent.

"As far as foreign children are concerned, we must see this issue not as a problem but as a challenge. It is something we cannot avoid and we must try to do our best. That means better integration policies and better resources."

Urs Moser, however, is looking for a greater commitment to educational assessment from Switzerland's directors of education.

"What we see from the countries which did well in the Pisa study, such as Australia, is that these countries had much more sophisticated quality management in their education systems.

"I think Switzerland needs to do more quality assurance, and deeper quality management.

"This could even be done on a national basis," he suggested. "We need more national evaluation of the situation in the whole of Switzerland. We've never really done any proper scientific research, we actually don't know that much about our school children."

"If we worked together to find out more about the situation, this would be a chance for Switzerland to get better results next time."

by Imogen Foulkes

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