Pressure to perform and selection of the gifted instead of kindergarten?

Pressure to perform and selection of the gifted instead of kindergarten?

by Felice Pensatore

The kindergarten is an important achievement of our education system. Without premature pressure to perform the children are able to learn calmly to find their way in a group of peers, to extend and consolidate their qualities and skills, and to playfully acquire the mental equipment and take the necessary steps to maturity which they need to be successful later on in school. This achievement of modern pedagogy is nowadays being questioned from different sides and is to make way for an efficiency-oriented preschool. Although not labelled as such, this is part of the Curriculum 21. This didn’t happen overnight but is a process of radical change planned well in advance and disregarding democratic conventions.

An interesting find

What a treasure chest a bookstand can be. Suddenly one discovers something read long ago and thinks: “Interesting, this was already discussed in those days!” Thus it happened to me not long ago with a booklet titled: “The Beginning of the End of Primary School. A Critical Analysis of the Gradual Abolishment of the Kindergarten in the new Primary School Act” and published about 20 years ago, namely in the year 20001. Actually it was again a “real pot of gold” as I realised while browsing. Already the preface, written by a longstanding, committed school board president of the city of Zurich, was revealing. In his introduction he stated how under the aegis of the former director of education Buschor an educational reform was initiated, which was characterised by a strict and one-track hierarchisation of the educational system corresponding to the road map of economic globalisation. Buschor as former lecturer of business finance at the University of St. Gall obviously was totally convinced of the success of globalisation and with great energy pursued this tendency in the educational system, too. The “special case Switzerland” however stood out due to its democratic structures and the possibilities of participation of the people. This would be soft-footedly destroyed.

Diminishing the importance of democracy as enforcement strategy

His observation was accurate. “Professionalisation” henceforth became the new buzzword to push though changes in our schools. Under this slogan the borough school boards, an authoritie elected by the people, were disestablished in the Canton of Zurich. Instead there is now a bloated department for school evaluation created to bring the schools into line with an enormous administrative effort. The “Hausvorstand” (“head of the household”) as primus inter pares of the school teams was replaced by a headmaster who was to introduce business structures and a clear hierarchy into the schools. The honorary school boards were degraded to rubber-stamping authorities; the cantonal and regional teacher conventions, which had been institutions of teacher participation, were replaced by a bloodless delegate system, and finally the kindergarten was taken out of the hands of the commune and newly put under control of the canton as part of the primary school2. Thereby a new strategic step was accomplished: the kindergarten was to become part of primary school so that it would be possible to go ahead with the reforms even down to our youngest children.

Planned well in advance

The gradual abolishment of the kindergarten in its present form was initiated as early as 1994, when the Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) ordered a Swiss-wide study-group to “outline perspectives of the public mandate concerning education and development of 4- to 8-year-old children”3. After three years, in 1997, a relevant dossier was published. Now it was planned to establish a so called “Basisstufe” (basic level) named “Grundstufe” (elementary level) in the Canton of Zurich. It would comprise the kindergarten and the first two primary classes in groups of mixed age4. Full of empty phrases, the report tries to lead the reader where it wants him to be: the basic level would be just the right thing for our youngest! Notabene: It covers the same age span as the cycle 1 of the Curriculum 21! The question was how to persuade the people to accept this project – the de-facto abolition of the kindergarten. Because Anton Strittmatter, then leading strategist in the restructuring of health and school services (since 2006 one of the six members of the project group “Principles of the Curriculum 21”) attested a “revolutionary content” to the introduction of the “Grund-/Basisstufe” (elementary/basic level) and called the intended changes “claims which turn nearly everything upside down”.
An opportunity was given in the Canton of Zurich when a new education act was due. So it was possible to include the planned reorganisation of the primary school – along with the abolition of the present kindergarten – in an overall package. This was done in the hope that it would slip through the votes quite smoothly, without anybody’s taking special notice. The draft was augmented to include, besides the basic level the so called “kindergarten+”, the name of which was intended to evoke positive connotations, since the kindergarten was deeply rooted in and very popular among the population. On closer inspection, the “kindergarten+” was only a variant of the basic level and an education-policy driven gambit to finally push it through. But that was reckoning without the responsible citizens. In this situational context, dedicated kindergarten teachers wrote what I called my rediscovered “pot of gold” in the beginning. In this booklet it is described the importance of the kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher as confidential person for the child. I recommend this analysis as reading matter to everybody!

Representatives of the people who do not represent the will of the people

In the year 2002 the primary school act came to the vote and was rejected, to the great dismay of the education authorities. Analyses showed that the reason was the planned abolition of the kindergarten. A second attempt was started – this time without including the basic level – for good reason. In the referendum 2005 the people agreed at last; the kindergarten seemed no longer to be at risk.
But the strategists in politics and economy kept on and on, they wanted access to the youngest children and to turn the school system upside down. The necessary enforcement provisions for primary school pilot projects were issued in an ordinance as a provisional matter to be voted on seven years later. But the voters were clearheaded once again: they rejected the basic level as well as the pilot projects with a majority of 71% on 25 November 2012. One would have thought that at least at that point, the political class would have come to their senses and retreated shamefacedly or even stood down from their offices. After all they were representatives elected by the people who had to represent the will of the people … But they were already planning a new gambit.

Pressure by new ideologies in education and advanced training

The kindergarten teachers were subtly to be brought in line by the new alignment of education, by advanced training, performance reviews and the perspective of eventually being treated on equal terms with primary school teachers. So, little by little, weekly schedules, workshops, portfolios and new forms of learning found their way into the kindergarten, notably with fledgling graduates of teacher training colleges. Voluntarily – one could even say hastening to show obedience or being afraid to be stick in the muds – many kindergarten teachers began to acquire teaching materials for German and mathematics and to use it in individualised teaching; they began to collect worksheets in folders, perhaps of different thickness, for every single child. In advanced training courses, kindergarten teachers were educated in individualised forms of learning and urged to adjust their kindergarten lessons accordingly. And so today kindergarten is unfortunately gradually mutating to the sort of preschool we know from Anglo-Saxon countries. Even small children are thus put under pressure to perform and to compete. The Canton of Basel-Stadt took the bun.5 The kindergarten teachers were told to fill in a questionnaire with standardised assessment points to evaluate if a child had “met high challenges”, “met basic challenges well”, “met basic challenges” or “did not meet basic challenges”.6
So – even if partly disguised – we are starting to apply grades to our smallest children? Is there to be observation and assessment instead of buildup of relationship, introduction into a group of peers, guidance and encouragement? Kindergarten teachers have been urged to lay the focus on observation and assessment, and the parents have been called on to confront themselves with the assessment. Should this example become the standard? Bye, bye, equality of opportunities! This is exactly what the voters did not want!

Curriculum 21 – without the Kindergarten as an independent grade

A second move was launched in 2006, following the adoption of the education article at federal level. The result of the vote was taken by the education authorities as a free pass to push through long-planned reforms in Switzerland – a completely new, competence-oriented curriculum dictated by the OECD – with which our education system is to be rebuilt according to the Anglo-American model. The voters had not said yes to that! Once again, this time by means of the cycles introduced by the Curriculum 21, the kindergarten as an independent grade is to be abolished. This change has already been repeatedly rejected with unparalleled clarity in the Canton of Zurich!

Kindergarten as a place of humanistic education

And rightly so, for anyone who reads the “real pot of gold”, which I found again, can feel the importance of kindergarten as a preparation for a successful school career. In the intimate community of peers, the children can take their first necessary steps towards maturity. The kindergarten teacher – often the first trusted person outside the family – supports the parents’ work and compensates for disadvantageous situations wherever necessary. Now that is what is really meant by equal opportunities! Guided by the kindergarten teacher, the children playfully acquire and expand their skills and abilities, as a basis for learning cultural techniques. In play, children deal with their inner and outer worlds, unfold their intelligence, their imagination as well as their perception, and develop their ability to pay attention as well as their ability to deal with conflict. If a child is already interested in letters and numbers, it will also benefit in this field. The kindergarten teacher supports the children in their becoming more independent and taking on responsibility, according to their age. In this way, the children develop their emotional, social and intellectual abilities in a holistic sense, and the kindergarten becomes a place where the young minds and dispositions are formed and the children start developing into humane personalities. Who would object to this?     •

1    Komitee für eine demokratische Volksschule (Hrsg.). Der Anfang vom Ende der Volksschule. Eine kritische Analyse zur Auflösung des Kindergartens im neuen Volksschulgesetz. August 2000 (Committee for a Democratic Elementary School (ed.). The Beginning of the End of Primary School. A Critical Analysis of the Gradual Abolishment of the Kindergarten in the new Primary School Act.)
2    see: Ibid. p. 1
3    Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) (ed.). Bildung und Erziehung der vier- bis achtjährigen Kinder in der Schweiz. (Training and education of 4- to 8-year-old children in Switzerland.) Dossier 48 A, Berne 1997, p. 5
4    The basic level, as provided by Ernst Buschor for the Canton of Zurich, was to comprise three years.
5    In the Canton of Baselland, too, attempts were made to rename the kindergarten years “first primary school”, which, however, could not be carried through. The designation kindergarten remained, even if it is obligatory everywhere now.
6    For example: “can endure frustrations”, “shows reasonable proximity-distance behaviour”, “can investigate and explain natural phenomena”, “can count flexibly”. Dozens of such descriptions must be ticked and scored on a four-point scale. This trivial classification is intended to form the basis for obligatory discussions with parents, so that agreements may be reached and written down on how the children should be individually supported by school and parents.

(Translation Current Concerns)

“But our direct democracy depends on the participation of all citizens, who are fully responsible and considerate of the weaker. The kindergarten as a place of human development of the children, should this now be called into question by an unnecessary school reform?”

Alfred Bohren, former cantonal councillor and full-time school president.
In: Committee for a Democratic Elementary School (ed.). The Beginning of the End of Primary School. A Critical Analysis of the dissolution of the gradual Abolishment of the Kindergarten in the new Primary School Act. August 2000, p.2

(Translation Current Concerns)

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