The role of the teacher at Swiss and British schools

UK teachers are part of a standardised national system

UK teachers follow the National Curriculum, which defines the content and aims of 13 years of education from kindergarten to A-levels. There are standardised tests for each grade. Important tests like IGCSEs and A-levels are set by national or global examination boards and continuous assessment plays only a small part in the final showing. Teachers and students need to be allies to succeed, as they both face external exam boards. The same applies to schools, where the management, teachers and students need to work together to achieve good results. 

UK teachers do not set final exams

In the UK tradition the teacher teaches, and the exam board tests. It is considered unethical to involve the teacher in testing more than marginally (e.g. coursework). Students work with their teachers in order to do well. They are not much concerned about the personal views and beliefs of their teachers. They express themselves freely in external exam essays, which will be marked anonymously by unseen examiners.

UK teachers are team players and like to buy in to a strong school culture. They are closely monitored, regularly observed by the management and teach a clearly defined, detailed programme prescribed by the curriculum. They are free in terms of the method of teaching, but not in terms of content or teaching approach. Teachers will tend to follow a detailed course syllabus agreed with the department and approved by the school.  

UK teachers do not write their own coursebooks. They will expect to be given first-class books and materials. They will supplement these sparingly with materials of their own and only where it seems necessary.

Teaching to the test and the ideal UK class

UK teachers are under pressure to ‘teach to the test’. Their success is measured in terms of the grades their students attain. Ideally, all students pass with the maximum grade, as is the case at schools like Eton or Sevenoaks. A good UK class will consist of students who all achieve maximum grades in all subjects. Conversely, it is quite possible for a weak class to consistently fail all examinations.

Swiss teachers up to grade 9 are kings of the classroom

The mixed blessings of federalism

Swiss Kindergarten, primary and secondary school teachers follow broad national guidelines. Also, they follow their cantonal versions, which differ quite widely in content. Their schools are run by local authorities (Schulgemeinden), who are free to make choices in structure and teaching approach. Schools answer to school boards (Schulpflegen), which are elected by the parish and very often have no background in education.

In some communities in the canton of Zürich secondary schools (dreiteilige Sekundarschulen) have separate higher-tier (Sek A) and lower-tier classes (Sek B and in some cases C), while other local authorities favour comprensive secondary schools (gegliederte Sekundarschule) where students of different levels of ability remain in the same class (Stammklasse E and G) and attend different level programmes per subject.   Local authorities may choose to offer up to three levels of difficulty in subjects like Mathematics and French. 

Some local authorities leave the teaching to teachers while others divide teaching up between classroom instruction and guided self-study in self-access centres (Lernlandschaften). 

Swiss teachers are also granted ‘Methodenfreiheit’, i.e. the freedom to choose their teaching method individually. Some teachers therefore use the good old grammar-translation method while others prefer an approach to teaching language where errors are only corrected a year or two after children start to write (‘Lesen durch Schreiben’, known to be disastrous for learners with dyslexia). 

Swiss teachers wish to be free to teach their students…

The Swiss state school system is so diverse that it is nigh impossible for publishers to produce books and materials in more than very small numbers. The teachers of primary, secondary and grammar schools very often ignore the official course books provided by the cantonal publishers, design their own syllabus and create their own materials.

… and resist standardized tests… 

Standardised tests run counter to the Swiss pedagogical tradition. This is why the Zürich Gymiprüfung is in fact an anomaly. Only a small minority of cantons have a standardized Gymiprüfung; academic selection left to primary and secondary school teachers and will depend mainly on the school grade point average. In the canton of Zürich, however, the Gymitest is mandatory. Primary and secondary school teachers view it with mixed feelings. In the countryside there is a tacit agreement between parents and teachers that the role of the teacher is to get primary school leavers into Sekundarschule, so that they may later undergo vocational training.

The role of provincial Sekundarschul teachers is primarily to help their charges to secure a good apprenticeship. In the ‘Gold Coast’ communities like Küsnacht or in Zürich-Seefeld parents put great pressure on teachers to pass as many as possible (up to 60%), frequently with the help of private coaching (Gymivorbereitung).  In such areas the role of primary and secondary school teachers it so enables their students to pass the Gymitest and both Sekundarschule and apprenticeships are for those unfortunate enough to fail. 

… or Quickcheck / Multicheck

While UK teachers may occasionally be overly guided by the syllabi of standardised tests, Swiss teachers sometimes lack transparency and clearly identifiable standards to the point where the professional world in Switzerland has started to put its foot down. 

Swiss secondary school students in Year 8 and Year 9 are now asked by future employers to sit standardized multiple-check tests in German, English, French, Mathematics and other subjects. Competencies like logic and linguistic skills are also included in Quickcheck and Multicheck. These are required by the corporate world as they no longer either fully understand or trust Swiss secondary school reports. This is in part because some communities have chosen a secondary school system without clearly identifiable academic tiers.

Why secondary school teachers of Science and History are at a disadvantage

While the secondary school teachers of most other Swiss cantons are sole academic gatekeepers when it comes to choosing students for the academic élite schools (Gymnasium), Zürich secondary school teachers are torn between their own notion of what education may be about, the Gymiprüfung and the standardized external computer tests future apprentices have to sit. In wealthy communities they will be under pressure to coach for the Gymiprüfung and in less privileged areas the priority will be the Quick- or Multicheck. As these examinations test German, French, Mathematics and in some cases English, Zürich secondary school teachers of other subjects like History, Science or cultural subjects are at a disadvantage.  

The roi soleil of the Swiss system

Gymi teachers (teachers at academic high schools or ‘Gymnasium’) are excellent academics. However, they receive less teacher training than primary and secondary school teachers and little instruction as to how to make materials and design tests. Yet, they have more freedom in content and method than anyone else in the Swiss system. They can even set and grade their own final examinations in some cases. Some Gymi classes will attend six years of History and finish somewhere in the 19th century while others spend much of their time on the 20th century. The decision will be taken by the teacher, rather than by the department. As a result, the school will have little say in the choice of syllabus.

A good class in the Swiss system (primary and secondary)

Grades in a good Swiss class will follow the Gaussian distribution. As there is no external standard for primary and secondary schools and Gymnasia set their own final examinations (Hausmatura) a good class will consist of about 25% top performers with grades of 5 (UK grade C+), 5.5 (UK grade B) and some few top grades of 6 (A or A*) . Half of the class will have grades between a minimum pass of 4 (UK grade E) and a good pass of up to 4.9 (narrow UK grade C) with a majority around 4.5 (UK grade D). A quarter will narrowly fail (slightly below a four) or genuinely fail (3.5 or lower). It is inconceivable for a class to collectively attain the maximum grade at a Swiss school. However, it is just as improbable for everyone to fail. 

A Swiss grade D (4.5) is a good pass, particularly at Gymnasium. However, UK universities do not understand…

At Swiss Gymnasium a minimum pass is a commendable achievement. This grading tradition works well for Swiss universities, who will accept all Matura holders with a minimum pass. Leading universities outside Switzerland, however, are largely unaware of the harshness with which Swiss students are graded and expect a grade point average of above 5.2 or higher. This unfortunately also applies to the UK Russell Group, which is sadly beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority of Swiss Matura holders, who would have been perfectly able to achieve three or four As in the UK A-level system with the same effort it took them to attain mediocre Swiss grades way below the minimum entrance standard of leading UK universities.

Strong teachers and a weak or non-existent management

Swiss primary, secondary and Gymi teachers run their classes as if they were their own boss. School managers have only recently been introduced to primary schools and enjoy very limited or no power at all. Rectors of Zürich state Gymnasia have less clout than their UK counterparts and stay in the background as much as possible. Neither parents nor students see much of them or their deputies. Day-to-day problems are left mostly to teachers. Therefore, they are expected to deal as far as possible with pastoral and disciplinary matters.

School managers are very often unknown to parents and students. Their office will not even be in the same village as the local primary school. They enter the scene only when massive problems occur like the imminent breakdown of a teacher. Usually they arrive together with representatives of the school board and a specially appointed crisis manager. 

Vocational schoolteachers in Switzerland must meet rigorous national standards 

As 80% of all Swiss students transfer from secondary schools to vocational colleges (Berufsschulen, Beruftsmaturitätsschulen, Fachmaturitätsschulen) they enter a different world where national standards are suddenly the norm. 

Vocational schools enjoy little or no freedom in what they teach. Their students spend three to four years preparing for challenging academic and practical examinations at the end of their apprenticeships.

A good Swiss vocational college (Berufsschule) functions much more like UK schools. Though continuous assessment by teachers and master craftspeople play an important part in the final grade, students will also have to face exacting national examinations. Students of a good Berufsschul class will collectively pass their final examinations well. As there is external assessment there is more room for a partnership between teachers and students. However, even at Berufsschulen the Principal and his deputy will keep a very low profile and rarely if ever appear in public.

Feedback and positive reinforcement at UK and Swiss schools

The focus of UK Teachers is to praise and motivate. At British parents’ evenings the focus will be on the strengths of the students. International parents often perceive Swiss teachers to be reserved and critical. However, they are taught to praise and motivate. Despite this, they end up doing so much less, most probably for cultural reasons.  They are much more unlikely to say things like ‘Your son is doing great!’. Swiss praise will take the shape of ‘Well, he frequently forgets his materials and can be rather chatty. Still, he is doing quite well overall.’ ‘Quite well’ will mean a 4.5 or the UK equivalent of a grade D. The Swiss 4.5 will require as much work as a good C in the UK system. 

Encouraging excellence: UK top grade vs Swiss minimum pass culture

For UK teachers it is a priority to pass as many students as possible with the maximum or second-best grade. The rankings of UK schools are based on this notion. Swiss teachers will not automatically mention what it takes to get the maximum grade. They will not see it as their job to make as many students as possible into top performers who get into Gymnasium or skip classes.

After all, the less academic Sekundarschule is fine to, is it not? Much of the Swiss educational system is about achieving a minimum pass which opens all doors. The highly gifted are less of a concern and students with top grades often come across of slightly strange. This applies even to Swiss university degrees where grades are far less significant than in English speaking countries. A pass is largely a pass.  

Encouraging creativity: UK debating vs Swiss compromise culture

UK teachers invest much of their energy in giving their learners the confidence to express their views, become more creative and original and shine as public speakers. However, Swiss teachers will be more concerned about how students fit into a group, work together as a team and express views with caution as they lack the expert knowledge to be brash. Rhetorical brilliance is not one of the salient features of Swiss educational culture. The emphasis is more on harmony, or conformity. Further to this,  an awareness of the limits of one’s own views and the need to follow numerous practical rules. Swiss teachers are excellent at fostering a spirit of compromise. 

The remote authority of a Swiss university professor

As the student professor ratio at Swiss universities is about ten times higher than in the UK. Swiss university professors teach much less and have little personal contact with their undergraduate students. They are remote authority figures whose publications – though not their teaching – guide Bachelor students in their self-study, without the support of UK university tutors, who do not exist in the Swiss system.

Swiss university students expect to have to cover most of the undergraduate material in self-study. There is more of a sense of hierarchy and students understand their professors have not only completed a doctorate, but also a second doctorate (Habilitationsschrift) required by the universities of German speaking countries. An entourage of assistants who do most of the teaching and marking surrounds the Swiss university professor. Though tenure is no longer secure for life, it is still secure enough for Swiss professors not to have to pull rank. Their salaries are princely enough to afford a Savile Row suit, but they often dress as informally as their students and are sometimes on first-name terms with their assistants, though not with their students.  

Author Bio

Robin Hull, lic.phil. Dip RSA

Robin Hull is Principal of Hull’s School Zürich, trustee of the Schweizerische Alpine Mittelschule Davos (SAMD), chairman of the Swiss Dyslexia Association (VDS), patron of the Music Eyes Foundation and curator of the International Aldous Huxley Society.

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