by Tisha Palit
When I received the letter from the local municipality assigning our 6 year old daughter to the state primary school (the proximity to our home being the decisive factor), I spent quite some time poring over the names of the pupils on the class-list in an effort to identify kids she could walk to school with. Walking to school…..I’ll come to that aspect later. My Indian, class-oriented heart skipped a beat as I noticed the name of our cleaning-lady’s son on the list. A strange emotion, a combination of anxiety and pride, swept over me. The fact that education system can work as a great leveller in society was so novel to me. A system where each child gets the same chances at life has something so awe-inspiring about it, specially for us who will run ten miles from a school which our driver/ gardener’s child attends.
I have been living in Switzerland for the past 18 years and the education system is one of the things that appeals to me the most and is something I have spent time analysing. Schooling begins rather late, which is one aspect I am not particularly fond of. After 5/6 years of primary schooling (depending on Canton/state), children are sieved into secondary schools which are of three kinds. Realschule for slow learners, Sekundarschule for mediocre learners and Gymnasium/ Bezirkschule for fast learners. I was initially aghast at this process of discrimination, but soon realised that the children always had a chance of moving on from lower to higher levels taking repeating a class into consideration. Thus there was this 16 year old boy in my 12 year old daughter’s class who had fought his way up from Realschule to Gymnasium or High School. Unfair though it may seem at first glance to have a burly teenager competing with a pre-teen, I doffed my hat at his sheer perseverance.
As mentioned earlier, the municipality/council assigns the children to the respective primary schools and they are expected to walk to school on their own or in groups. The traffic police conducts classes on safety on roads and shows the children how to follow traffic signals and use pedestrian crossings over the period of a week. Somehow, I must say, I never feared for her as she left home carrying her rucksack, come rain or shine. Being responsible for little things early on in life adds to self-confidence, provided the conditions of safety are met with.
The other thing that comes to my mind is that I have never heard of parents looking for housing in a neighborhood where schools are good, like I often hear my British friends discussing about good schools in the UK. State schools are supposed to follow a certain standard of education and infrastructure irrespective of neighborhoods. Hence, schools in villages with middle income group inhabitants are equally good as schools around the Lake of Zurich which is predominantly inhabited by high income groups of people. The fact that kids from the rich areas come dressed in designer ware is a different issue altogether. Teachers are rather well-paid in the state schools and teaching is still considered a noble profession.
This leads nicely into the question, ‘Are there any private schools or public schools as the British call it (which is such a confusing terminology for people in the rest of the world)?’ Yes, there are. The British, American and French schools for children of expats or temporary corporate employees and a handful of smaller schools promising to give a better pupil-teacher ratio for children who usually fall through the net and where the parents are willing to foot the bill. Which basically means that weaker pupils or children who need more attention frequent the private schools. This is in sheer contrast to the 7-10 per cent of the children in the U.K. who attend the elitist private schools where rich parents pay 30,000 pounds per annum to send their children to these schools, thus perpetuating the class system and creating a hybrid society.
After finishing 9 years of compulsory education, 20 per cent of the pupils go on to high schools and the remaining 80 per cent opt for apprenticeship. In Switzerland, apprenticeship is the most common form of post-compulsory education and training and enjoys an excellent reputation. Young people can choose from over two hundred possible careers and then find an appropriate apprenticeship where they train in the companies they get the apprenticeship in. It’s a dual model of education where the apprentice works on a number of days and attends schools on the other days.
The three- or four-year basic course provides an advanced federal certificate that qualifies graduates to practice a specific trade or profession and enables access to higher vocational training. The two-year basic course allows less academically inclined students to complete a recognised professional qualification (basic federal certificate) with a unique educational profile.
Training is divided into three separate components:
• on-the-job training at the place of business
• vocational studies at a vocational school
• and a general course of education
From the first year itself, the apprentice receives a monthly salary of several hundred Swiss francs. Companies are legally bound to provide training to the youth and play a role in nation building.
Vocational training is completed with a practical and theoretical examination, and graduates receive a federal certificate of competence or federal professional certification which is recognised throughout Switzerland. On successful completion of an apprenticeship, young people can not only find a job in their learnt profession but also have the choice of going on to studying further at the Fachhochschule or Technical Colleges.
Although the system of apprenticeship exists in many countries, the way it is practiced varies from country to country. In the continent, the system is highly respected and is regarded as a valued alternative to university. Young people are encouraged to think about their future at an early age. From age 14, children who do not want to go to high schools have one hour a week of mandatory career education in school and go for ‘trial runs’ in companies of their choice. They are encouraged to visit career advisers in their regions for one-to-one advice and guidance.
From my personal experience, I see most parents preferring apprenticeship over higher education because the chances of getting a job after the successful completion of apprenticeship are much higher than after getting a university degree.
As far as I could analyse, this high regard for apprenticeship and vocational training can only happen if there is a high level of dignity of labour. There is no denying the fact that a plumber/ electrician/ engine driver/ hairdresser/ mason is equally important in society as a professor/ teacher/ doctor. The facts that there is a minimum salary level and that no one looks down upon any job go a long way in making the country prosperous.
Now the questions that arise in my mind is, why do we follow the Anglo-Saxon system of education so blindly when there are other systems around that can be explored and experimented with? Must we be so rigid in our ways of thinking so that we vehemently oppose the practice of a system that might help our society at large? Is it not high time for letting the winds of change in our country as far as education is concerned? Can we not have a system that emphasises on vocational training as a degree and gives it its due respect? Of course, the thing that we need to attack first and foremost is our way of thinking. Dignity of labour is what we need to begin our journey with. I believe changes can be implemented even if it is a long and arduous road ahead…..for the sake of posterity.
Tisha Palit is an educationist in Switzerland, with over 17 years of experience. Observing and analysing differences in social and educational set-ups is her core interest. She has also taught at a municipal school in Delhi recently, as a volunteer. Tisha likes running when not teaching, and is proud mom to a daughter who is about to finish high school.