Voters take pragmatic approach to education

The education system will be more unified nationwide Keystone

Experts say voter pragmatism rather than a break with the traditional federalist system decided Sunday's ballot on education reform.

This content was published on May 21, 2006 minutes

They say fears that Switzerland will now become more centralized are unfounded. In their view, the current system doesn't meet the people's requirements.

Lucien Criblez, professor at the college of Teacher Education in Aarau, says the outcome of Sunday's vote shows the days of absolute cantonal autonomy on education matters are over.

"The generation of today doesn't understand and doesn't want almost every canton to have its own system. It appears that efficient steps towards more coordination could have been made earlier," said Criblez.

But he says Switzerland is by no means about to introduce a unified and centralised structure, as some opponents of the reform feared.

"As far as compulsory schooling goes, it is now up to the country's 26 cantons to find a common solution," he told swissinfo.

The federal parliament is due to take the next step when it debates a new law aimed at fostering more cooperation and coordination at the university level.

English teaching

In a similar vein, Christian Aeberli of the Education Department of Canton Aargau, says the reforms will put more pressure on the cantons to harmonise their structures.

Aeberli, an expert formerly with the think tank Avenir Suisse, says he was surprised by the huge approval rating of the reform bill.

He believes that the real test will be how well the new system will allow the dispute over the teaching of foreign languages at primary school levels to be resolved.

"I think the question of whether English or a national language should be taught first at primary school might be a case for the federal authorities to intervene to end a stalemate."

Both education experts dismiss suggestions that Sunday's vote will have an impact on results of future international comparisons of student skills, known as the Pisa studies.

"The Pisa results depend on the quality of teaching and on the social background of the students," said Criblez.

Mobile society

Political scientist, Claude Longchamp, describes the outcome of the ballot as a pragmatic decision taken by a modern, mobile society.

Longchamp told public radio the overwhelming number of yes-votes across the country showed that the proposal had been well-balanced.

"It was also a relatively abstract bill and therefore it failed to capture the imagination of the electorate," he said, explaining the reason for the low voter turnout - just over 27 per cent.


The Swiss teachers association said it was pleased with Sunday's vote, and urged the federal and cantonal governments to take their new joint responsibilities seriously.

Its president, Beat Zemp called for the creation of a special federal office to boost education, research and innovation.

A leading opponent of the education reform, Oskar Freysinger, said the constitutional amendment would lead to a costly bureaucracy, without solving the problems in the classroom.

"I don't believe that a uniform system can be better than diversity, centralisation hardly ever leads to better quality," the teacher and Swiss People's Party parliamentarian said.

Josef Zisyadis, a Communist parliamentarian, expressed concern that the amendment put future reforms in the hands of a bureaucracy, rather than in the hands of voters and paved the way for the privatisation of Switzerland's schools.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

Reforms of the Swiss education system:
National monitoring system for education
Unified education standards
Mutual recognition of diplomas
Reform of universities

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In brief

Under Switzerland's federalist system the country's 26 cantons enjoy a large degree of autonomy in education matters.

The Swiss education system is built on a complex interplay between the federal, cantonal and local authorities depending on the education level and the kind of institution.

All previous attempts to unify or harmonise the various educations systems have met resistance from the cantons. Voters rejected a proposal for unification in 1973.

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