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Swiss students get an encouraging report

Switzerland can be pleased with its students' achievements - but they aren't the best! Keystone

Swiss teenagers have made progress in reading, are still excellent at maths and are good at science, according to the latest international Pisa report.

The results for Switzerland of the fourth “Programme for International Student Assessment” were presented in Bern on Tuesday. Some of its findings will fuel the on-going debate about the country’s education system.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been assessing the abilities in reading, mathematics and science of 15-year-olds every three years since 2000. The 2009 survey covered the 34 OECD members and 31 partner countries.

It tested some 470,000 students, with the main focus on reading ability, as in 2000.

“Switzerland is making progress,” Bernard Hugonnier, one of the co-authors of the report told

“The Swiss are very good at maths, good at science and not so good at understanding written texts, but they have moved up from 17th position [out of 32 countries] to 11th [of 65] between 2000 and 2009. So these results are relatively good.”

Isabelle Chassot, president of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK), went further, describing them as “encouraging” when she presented the results to a media conference on Tuesday.

She recalled the shockwave that went through the country after the publication of the very average results in reading achieved in 2000, and in particular the finding that 20 per cent of students had reading difficulties.

Efforts bear fruit

“Things have changed,” said Chassot. “It seems that the great efforts made since then have borne fruit” – an allusion to the EDK’s action plan for the promotion of reading launched in 2003.

Swiss students’ reading ability now places them above the average for the OECD, in the top 13. The list is headed by South Korea and Finland. The results of those two countries, along with those of Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia, are still described as “significantly” better than Switzerland’s.

“One interesting point is that the proportion of students experiencing serious difficulty has gone down from 20 per cent in 2000 to 16.8 per cent in 2009,” Hugonnier said.

“The figure is still below average, but shows that Switzerland is making an effort for the most underprivileged.”

Chassot also welcomed the improvement in the reading performance of students with a “migration background” – those born abroad or whose parents were born abroad.

“Only one country in Europe achieved a score significantly higher than Switzerland’s: Finland, which is less heterogeneous than Switzerland,” she said.

The progress is all the more noteworthy, in that the proportion of teenagers with a migration background rose in the same period from 20.7 per cent to 23.5 per cent, said the consortium, the group responsible for Pisa in Switzerland.

René Levy, professor emeritus of sociology at Lausanne University, told that it is generally accepted that a child’s socio-economic background has an important impact on school results.

“In other words, if non-Swiss children are making progress, it is because they are better integrated.”

The education debate

The results of the Pisa study come amid a lively political debate in Switzerland about the future direction of education. At its heart is the Harmos plan to harmonise school systems across the country.

Harmos sets the length of compulsory schooling in Switzerland at 11 years, including two years of kindergarten from age four. It also provides for timetable standardisation and childcare outside school hours. So far it has been adopted by 15 cantons out of 26, accounting for 75 per cent of the population.

Chassot made it clear that the EDK, which is backing Harmos, will “persevere in [its] plans for the development of the education system”.

But Harmos is strongly opposed in some quarters, including the rightwing Swiss People’s Party. Among other things, it objects to the plan to introduce a second year of pre-school education, on the grounds that children are better off at home when they are very young.

“Populist defeatism”

For their part, the trade unions of German- and French-speaking teachers issued a joint statement in reaction to the Pisa study, in which they said the discourse of “certain parties and business associations” about “soft teaching practices” had now been shown to be “populist defeatism”.

They said the study findings showed how effective Swiss schools were.

If each Pisa study provokes controversy, the 2009 version could get things moving, Levy said.

“For me, the value of this kind of survey is not so much in the change in the international rankings, which after all are only rankings, but the fact that it enables us to make a serious comparative analysis [of achievements within Switzerland].”

The results by language region and canton will not be available before the end of next year.

Meanwhile, education will be a major issue in the parliamentary elections to be held in 2011.

Since the results are based on sample tests, Pisa says no precise rankings can be established.

It prefers to show the range in which each country falls.

In 2009, Switzerland fell in the range 8 – 17 for reading, 2 – 4 for mathematics and 8 – 12 for science. These ranges take account only of the OECD countries.

In all three subject areas, Switzerland was in the group “significantly above the OECD average”.

The “Programme for International Student Assessment”, Pisa, was launched officially in 1997 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the request of its member countries to measure the performance of the different educational systems.

The first survey was carried out in 2000, and the study has been repeated every three years since then with the results published the following year.

The study looks at abilities in reading, mathematics and science. In each survey, one of the three subjects is taken as the main one for assessment purposes. In 2000 and 2009 the subject was reading.

The aim is to assess what is known as “information literacy”: not only basic knowledge, but also students’ ability use to their knowledge and experience and apply them to problem solving and to everyday tasks.

In 2009 34 OECD member countries and 31 partner countries took part.

A total of 470,000 15-year-olds were tested, about 10,000 of them in Switzerland.

In Switzerland the overall management of the Pisa programme is based at the Federal Statistics Office in Neuchâtel. It collaborates with four regional coordination centres: the Institute for Educational Assessment in Zurich, the St Gallen University of Teacher Education, the Educational Research Service in Geneva and the Office of Study and Research in Ticino.

(Translated from French by Julia Slater)

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