Swiss schools stand by their ski camps

During "ski camps", students in Switzerland can also try snowboarding, cross-country skiing or even ski jumping. © Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

It’s been a tradition that children in Switzerland spend at least one week of their schooling years in the snow. Despite some recent pushback, schools appear set to continue the tradition for as long as there is enough snow.

This content was published on January 13, 2020 - 11:00

“Today we no longer talk about ‛ski’ camps but ‛snow-sports camps’, Tobias Fankhauser of the Swiss Federal Office of Sports (FOSPOExternal link) explains. During most of these school trips to the mountains, the children can also try snowboarding, cross-country skiing or even ski jumping.

But the principle remains the same: for five days, teachers and pupils have a chance to get to know each other in a different light, away from the formality and structure of the classroom.

In the Federal Office’s view, the camps “provide young people with a positive experience that boosts their social skills and their development.” The children generally come away with happy memories of their time at camp: of bonding with their classmates, hanging out in the dormitories and spending fun evenings with their friends.

From a sporting point of view, the results are also positive. Children can make amazing progress in just five days when totally immersed in a snow-sports environment and without their parents hovering over them. This is also a win for the families, who are more willing to spend their Sundays on the slopes.

Ski camp is also a magical time where children make memories that last for a lifetime. Keystone / Juerg Mueller

Keeping a link with the mountains

“In Switzerland, the tradition of winter camps dates back to the Second World War,” explains Grégory QuinExternal link, lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Sports Sciences of the University of Lausanne.

“They were created to fill the hotels deserted by foreign tourists. And that’s still the idea in some way. Because, in terms of motor skills and health, snow sports are no better than regular educational activities. The point is rather to maintain the link between the Swiss people and their mountains.”

And this point has persisted for over 70 years. Today, almost all Swiss children will go to snow camp at least once during their compulsory schooling – even if no law mandates it.

Downward trend

Does this mean that skiing lessons are written into the DNA of Swiss schools, in the same way as history and the national languages? Not necessarily.

There has actually been a slight decline in participation in recent years.  The Federal Office of Sports, which helps finance the camps via its Youth + Sports promotion programme, has kept national statistics since 2005. In 13 years, the number of camps has gone from 2,585 to 2,368.

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Tobias Fankhauser, the Federal Office spokesman, sees several possible explanations for this. “In particular, there is a demographic change (fewer and fewer children), the lack of snow, especially in low-altitude resorts closer to large cities, but also the fact that snow sports are not a priority for families from immigrant backgrounds.”

Add to this the safety and supervision requirements, which some school teachers and principals are no longer willing to assume. Not to mention parents’ fears.

“People are afraid to let their children sleep away from home, with the other problems that could arise,” notes Vincent Ebenegger, an official in charge of sports and health at schools in canton Valais in south-western Switzerland. “It’s also getting more expensive.”

Crux of the matter

Indeed, snow camps are rarely free. Few schools manage to cover the entire cost with their ordinary budgets. Schoolchildren can thus often be seen at markets or in shopping centre hallways selling pastries, knick-knacks or raffle tickets to help pay for camp. Schools also ask parents to contribute, from a few dozen francs to sometimes well over CHF300 ($308).

This is far too much in the view of the Federal Court, which in December 2017 handed down a decisionExternal link on a case related to paid school activities that caused a furore. Ruling on an appeal lodged by four parents from canton Thurgau, the supreme court judges concluded that during a camp, schools may only charge parents for what their children’s meals would cost them if they were at home. That is between CHF50-80 per week, depending on their age.

This immediately unleashed a wave of panic, especially in the media, which feared that the sentence signed the death warrant for snow camps in all Swiss cantons.

But the Federal Office of Sports has not found any impact. “On the contrary, more camps were organized in 2018 and 2019 [so far] than in 2017” says Tobias Fankhauser. Would there have been even more without the Federal Court ruling? “One can only speculate” responds Fankhauser cautiously.

The government to the rescue

Even if the camps remain popular, the attraction of snow sports in Switzerland is slowly declining.

“Skiing has become a luxury sport, we are aware of that now, but we should have seen it coming twenty years ago. It can cost a family more to spend a day at a large resort like Verbier than to fly to Porto or Greece for three days in the sunshine,” the sports historian Grégory Quin points out bluntly.

However, it’s clear that if children enjoy a ski camp, they are more likely to choose a snow vacation in the mountains.

In response, in 2014, the Swiss government launched an initiative to promote winter sports, through the GoSnow platform, which helps schools find the best deals for accommodation and ski passes in order to organize a camp.

And, at the start of the 2019 school year, the new Minister of Defence and Sports, Viola Amherd from canton Valais, announced that her department would now give schools CHF12 per student per day for snow camps, up from the current CHF7.60.

The Valais school sports official Vincent Ebenegger sees this as a sign. “The fact that an initiative such as GoSnow exists in Switzerland shows that there is a problem with snow camps. And if the federal government is stepping up its contribution, that’s not for nothing.”

Long live the snow! Keystone / Gaetan Bally

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