Younger children are also skipping school

Emtpy chairs are becoming more common - also in Kindergarten Keystone

Most people think school truants are older children, but experts say that cutting school is a growing problem in Switzerland among younger pupils too.

This content was published on February 25, 2018 - 15:00

“It’s already starting in Kindergarten, there are many absences,” Freddy Noser, president of the School Principals Association in canton St Gallen, told Swiss public television SRFExternal link in a recent report.

This rise among Kindergarten (which runs from age 4-6 in Switzerland) and primary pupils concerns him. “We can no longer ignore it. We must take it seriously. If we don’t, we’re going to have an even bigger problem in ten years’ time, with absences of 20-30%,” he said.

This is why the canton founded a working group on the issue in 2014, which was expanded in 2017. It is made up of representatives working in the school, health or social work field. Elsbeth Freitag, deputy director of the canton St Gallen school counselling serviceExternal link, is a member.

“We know from research that for truancy, fear is probably a factor in 80% of cases,” she said of why 6-8 year olds are cutting classes. This could be fear of school, of failing, of being bullied.

Fear of school can lead to children being allowed by parents to stay at home, for days or even weeks. But many of those involved are too ashamed to speak about it, Freitag told SRF.

National tendency

There are no national statistics in Switzerland for truancy. But the Federation of Swiss TeachersExternal link (LCH) says that in general a tendency towards more truancy among younger children has been observed. At Kindergarten level it often occurs when there is a trip to the forest; parents excuse their children because they “partly feel it’s too dangerous or too taxing”, the federation’s general secretary Franziska Peterhans, told Often these are parents with little experience of the outdoors.

These same parents often believe that school demands too much of their children and that certain principles required by schools are not really necessary, Peterhans said in email comments.

Truancy, no matter at what age, is a serious matter, she said. It must be understood and measures taken to change the situation: so it is certainly important to look at the issue from all angles, like in canton St Gallen.

The St Gallen working group is, for example, using information campaigns and extra teacher training to draw attention to the issue.

Parental attitudes

Some research for the reasons behind truancy does exist for older school pupils (ages 12-17). The 2008 study was carried out by Margrit StammExternal link, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Fribourg. Some of the main reasons for skipping classes among these older pupils were that they were tired of school or were falling behind.

+Find out more how the Swiss school system works here

Stamm told SRF that she was not surprised that truancy was affecting younger pupils as well. There is a shift in values in society; the current generation of parents are more prepared to go against school rules, she said.

Experts agree that parents also need to be held to account. At present they can be fined over their children’s school absences (the amount depends on the canton) or, in cases of prolonged absenteeism, be reported the child protection services which then decide on further measures. The police could get involved in very extreme cases. However, there is always very careful consideration of the situation and the reasons behind it first.

Another issue is the growing tendency for parents taking their children away on holiday during term time, confirmed Peterhans of the teachers’ federation. Absences like this need permission from the school.

“For teachers these kind of “lesson breaks” generate extra work because the children have to catch up their missed classes. Parents have to be provided with the right instructions to help catch up on the school work,” she said.

Joker days

Primary school parents in the canton of Zurich are for example allowed two “Joker Days”External link a year for absences which they do not have to justify. They just have to officially inform the teacher beforehand.

A group of enterprising pupils from a Zurich gymnasium (high school) have submitted a motion – via their teacher as they are still too young at aged 16 - to the Zurich cantonal parliament to allow joker days at their school level as well.

It was accepted by the cantonal parliament at the end of JanuaryExternal link. But it still has to clear a second reading and it is opposed by the cantonal government. Education director Silvia Steiner said having joker days at gymnasium level sent “the wrong signal”. 13 weeks of holiday and the ability to take leave with permission was enough, she said.

Interestingly, the practice of joker days is not widespread in the French-speaking part of SwitzerlandExternal link. According to the Tribune de Genève, only the canton of Jura allows it.

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