What is wrong with our schools?

by Dr Eliane Perret, curative teacher and psychologist

Acute teacher shortage! In the last few weeks, there was probably no newspaper, no TV channel and no radio station that did not make this a topic. But isn’t it true that our schools have been facing the same problem in recent years? That in school buildings teachers were quitting by the dozen, falling ill or switching to other professions, and that we had to make do with stopgap solutions? All at the expense of our children and young people, who only have one school term. Again now! What has been going wrong for years? What are the underlying reasons for this deplorable state of affairs? Facing up to this question is inevitable and must not be denied any longer.

Leo received his new school backpack already six months ago. He is now starting first grade. “Yes, he is happy, but actually kindergarten was already almost like school, filling in worksheets, writing numbers and letters. Leo was watched by his kindergarten teacher and judged with lists of crosses,” the mother thinks regretfully, “he missed playing and doing handicrafts together. But now a new time begins for him.” But she knows that Leo can hardly linger longer on one thing. “If the teacher will then also tell her again that it needs to be clarified?” she ponders. It was already a topic of conversation in kindergarten. “If only we were in the Canton of Ticino, there they obviously get along better with lively children.” Her husband had read in the newspaper a few years ago that fewer children there were being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. “Fortunately, the school management of her first-grader still found a teacher during the holidays, so actually not a “real” teacher, but someone who is now trying his hand at school after a very, very short training period at the teacher training college,” she muses further. The other son will have a young teacher in the middle school who is interrupting her education to gain her first experience in teaching. “Hopefully, at least she won’t be one of those who quit after a short time because they can’t cope,” the mother reflects. That was the case with the eldest daughter in the upper school. There, teachers took turns staying only a short time in the increasingly neglected class, so that they finally pooled all their money in the family to send their daughter to a private school. Actually, they didn’t think that was right, because the primary school (Volksschule) is for “the people” (Volk) and is financed by their taxes. But now Leo’s mother tries to put her worries aside and face the new challenges with confidence.

Leo’s mother is not alone

But Leo’s mother is not alone in her worries. In the last few weeks, reports of a blatant shortage of teachers in primary schools have been piling up. One even dared to speak of an “education crisis”. Possible solutions ranged from an increase in the size of school classes over a compulsory increase in the teacher’s number of teaching hours to easier or, on the contrary, also more difficult requirements for access to training. Finally, there were “liberating” announcements from the cantonal education departments that the problem had been solved almost everywhere. However, one did not learn exactly how, except that some classes now had teachers without training (but with life and professional experience) or also students from teacher training colleges who interrupted their studies to teach (which, by the way, had already happened before).

Not sugar-coating, but an honest analysis

Wouldn’t now be the time to think more fundamentally about what is actually going wrong in our education system? After all, the lack of teachers, the high turnover in the school buildings, teaching outside the subject area or in foreign levels and burnouts are a problem that our schools have been suffering from for several years – and that is always sugar-coated. Honest, independent research into the causes would be indicated, because the “patient school” also has the right to a careful diagnosis and professionally correct “therapy”. Only then can measures be taken that actually work. Because a confectioner works with sugar-coating, it does not belong in the hands of those responsible for education!

A long aberration

The analysis of the current state of our primary school1, however, requires a look at what has happened in our primary school over at least the last three decades. Many people are hardly aware that this is where the roots of today’s misery lie. Anyone who has followed the developments in our education system knows about the tornado that swept over the schools during this period. Previously, Swiss schools had always been certified as being of very high quality in international comparison. The gap between high-achieving and weaker children was small and the school was well anchored in the democratic system of our country (as it should be for a primary school!). This changed in the mid-nineties when the OECD, under pressure from the USA, forced UNESCO out of its leadership role. The decisive factor was the threat by the USA to withdraw from this international organisation, just as they had withdrawn from UNESCO in 1984 when UNESCO had not yielded to their demands at the time.2 The OECD initially resisted, but then gave in to the pressure and worked out the indicators with which education systems were to be compared internationally. It thus appointed itself the sole arbiter for the assessment of national education systems. To this end, it designed the PISA tests, which were prepared over five years by about 300 international scientists. Accordingly, they had no connection whatsoever with the European educational tradition and national educational concepts and curricula, but were based on the proverbially bad Anglo-American educational system. Despite the associated theoretical and cultural break with the European educational tradition, the OECD countries – including Switzerland – gave their blessing to the PISA concept and thus established (not least due to incipient peer pressure) the supremacy of the economic organisation in the field of education.3

Shock strategy as catalyst

Switzerland was shocked by the unexpectedly poor results of the first PISA test. This acted as a catalyst for a cascade of reforms that steadily removed our primary school system from its democratic structures, which were obviously “disruptive”. This was done so easily that one of the few independent studies marvelled at how loosely these fundamental reforms proceeded in Switzerland and that not even the cantons, as the most important veto players, offered the expected resistance.4 Since then, our education system has been characterised by an internationally equalising ranking fetishism, which was absolutely unnecessary because the quality of our schools was outstanding.

Schools and universities as customer-oriented service companies

NPM, these three letters stand for New Public Management.5 It is the tool of neoliberal governments to reduce public expenditure as much as possible and to turn the state into a customer-oriented service company. This was the beginning of the transformation of our democratically organised and controlled education system into a business-managed school operation taken over from the private sector. From then on, it was all about austerity programmes, efficiency and effectiveness. In the Canton of Zurich, the name of the then cantonal councillor Ernst Buschor and his management team is associated with this. Formerly a professor of business administration at the University of St. Gallen HSG, he was a vehement advocate of NPM. He took over as head of the Zurich Department of Education in 1995 on the condition that he would be able to transform it with these methods (as he had previously done in the health sector). In an article in the “Tages-Anzeiger” he pointedly promised to “take the Zurich school system down from its high pedagogical horse and transform it into a service enterprise”. He initiated a storm of reforms – starting with the university, which was converted into the Bologna system from 1999; the secondary schools received a new Matura ordinance, and the then new universities of applied sciences were also run according to NPM criteria from the beginning. Always justified by financial shortages and corresponding pressure to save money.

GATS – public services as a commodity

This period also saw – and not coincidentally – the global free trade agreements concluded in 1995 within the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which today involve 164 countries. One of these agreements was the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). It demands an ongoing process of privatisation of public services. Switzerland signed this agreement in 1995.
  Education is one of the sectors listed in the GATS; it has not been subject to any of the possible exception clauses by Switzerland. This is important to mention because without including these international aspirations of the globalised economy, the current aberrations in our education system can neither be understood nor corrected.

De-democratisation, corporate structures and CEOs

NPM thus provided the roadmap with which our schools have been turned upside down over the last three decades. The intention was to restructure them into service companies with global budgets and corresponding hierarchical levels. This included corporate structures, which is why school management boards (also known as CEOs in the private sector) were introduced as early as 1996. They replaced the previous collegial cooperation with a house director who, as primus inter pares, took over administrative tasks and represented the team at the meetings of the school board. Whereas headmasters were at first dedicated, sometimes overly ambitious teachers, today this “job” can be taken over by managers without any teaching experience. Management theories also determine the content of expensive school management training. A very important point of reform was the abolition of the democratic anchoring of schools, typical of Switzerland, with corresponding subsidiarily organised authority structures in their respective communes and regions. This was the only way to push through the reforms with a top-down strategy. This is why the school boards, which had previously been elected by the people, were deprived of their power in favour of the school management and turned into administrative authorities. The next higher authority, the district school administration, which had previously supervised the schools and had been the contact for appeals, was replaced under the catchword “professionalisation” by a specialist office for school evaluation, which was appointed by the administration. Since then, it has been reviewing the quality of schools in a procedure that is labour-intensive for the schools and, according to many, unnecessarily time-consuming and unhelpful. The school levels were also reorganised and the kindergarten, which was well established and appreciated by the Swiss population, was replaced by a basic level that was already designed with school material in mind (even though the term “kindergarten” was retained in many places).
  For teachers, therefore, a new, sharp wind was blowing. They were no longer elected by the electorate, but were now hired on contracts common in the private sector and subjected to salary-related staff appraisals. Their professional mandate was redefined and they had to adapt their teaching to the now propagated individualising methods of classroom management.

New training concepts at the
universities of teacher education

Just like all other reform steps, the redesign of teacher education is therefore also in the context of the predetermined direction set by the OECD and the Framework for Action on Education 2030 of the UNESCO. A very decisive reform step was therefore – especially in the context of today’s misery – the abolition of the previous training centres for teachers, the seminaries, where they had been introduced to their profession by professionals with practical experience and oriented towards the European educational tradition. Now, teacher training colleges were founded, where today students are primarily introduced to the methodological and content-related teaching principles from the Anglo-American world. This includes predominantly self-organised learning, which builds on the competences of the controversial Curriculum 21 that can be tested by means of tests. This is often taught – as we hear from students – by lecturers whose requirement profile apparently no longer necessarily includes their own teaching experience in primary school.

Silently heading in the wrong direction

In summary: There was – unnoticed by many – a steady reform process at all levels of our education system in the last decades, from the administrative structure to the training and educational content, which tried to detach our school system from its direct democratic roots. This was tantamount to a paradigm shift from the European educational tradition to Anglo-American concepts also at the level of teaching. Referendums followed, with the aim of getting the people on board. The legislative proposals put to the vote were not very transparent and were accompanied by sophisticated propaganda campaigns. They contained a lot of leeway for ordinances, with which those responsible for education could subsequently introduce controversial measures without any problems. Examples were the 2006 referenda on an education article in the Federal Constitution and the establishment of the HarmoS Concordat by the democratically dubiously legitimised EDK (Education Directors’ Conference). Both were “sold” under the premise of aligning the cantonal education systems, but were a further process of de-democratisation that meant an increase in power and centralisation at the federal level at the expense of the cantons. The unsubstantiated argument that the development of Swiss schools had come to a standstill in the 19th century and would now lose touch with the world if they did not join in was repeated like a prayer mill. It seemed forgotten that Switzerland had previously always been admired for its excellent school system …
  Despite this concentrated propaganda, many alert and responsible contemporaries resisted this misguided development. One example is the popular initiatives in 11 cantons in German-speaking Switzerland with which they tried to prevent the introduction of Curriculum 21 (although the votes were lost, a quarter or even every third voter always supported these proposals).

Honesty is the order of the day

And what does this have to do with the concerns of Leo’s mother described at the beginning and the precarious situation of the teacher shortage? Many interested contemporaries puzzle over the reasons for today’s problems and look for solutions. This cannot be done without careful analysis, because an honest public debate about the cultural change of our education system never took place. On the contrary, the critical objections and well-founded analyses of teachers and responsible education officials were not only thrown to the wind and dismissed as conspiracy theories, but were shut down for years with an ugly media campaign that was unusual for Switzerland. Since then, many teachers no longer dare to speak out loud and clear, and more than a few left the profession that was no longer theirs, reduced their workload, took on a pedagogical niche or took early retirement. Others went overboard to “get it right”, to avoid criticism, some also because they saw a possible career opportunity for themselves in education administration. Burnouts increasingly became common occupational hazards for teachers. It was also noticeable that although the teacher training colleges were very busy, many of the trainees gave up their studies and the new trainees did not even enter professional life or only with a small workload, or even quit again after a short time in resignation and disappointment. (What company could afford such a flop?) The reasons for this have not been independently investigated to this day. This article is intended as a contribution to that.

Education instead of classroom management

I still think that I have chosen the finest profession I can imagine as a teacher. I would also grant this insight to young teachers or those who have been in the profession for some time and sometimes doubt it. And of course, I wish all children and young people a school time in which they can build up and maintain joy in learning. They only have this chance once and carry the experience with them throughout their lives. Of course, parents also play an important role in making this happen, because through their upbringing they introduce their child to the world and prepare him or her for how to meet the demands of school. If they can form a working alliance with the teacher, the chances for their child are best. However, as parents you must demand (!) that your child can attend a school that is based on a pedagogical-psychological foundation as it has developed in the European educational tradition and is constantly being continued. Today, scientific findings are available on how to design child-centred teaching.6 These have been largely neglected in recent decades because the thrust of the reforms was not pedagogically justified. Now everyone is challenged and must get in the way if we want to regain the formerly good level of education, an important substance of our country. Let’s get started!  •

1 In the following, I will focus on the schools in the Canton of Zurich whereas the development in the other cantons has been similar.
2 In 1984, the USA, Great Britain and Singapore withdrew from UNESCO after the latter had passed a resolution that should reduce the dependence on the four major news organisations AP, UPI, AFP and Reuters.
3 cf. Langer, Roman. “Warum haben die Pisa gemacht?” (“Why did they do Pisa?”))In:< id> (2008). “Warum tun die das?” (“Why do they do that?”) Governance analyses on the steering action in school development. Wiesbaden: vs Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften (Publisher for Social Sciences); also: Martens, Kerstin/Wolf, Klaus-Dieter. “Paradoxien der Neuen Staatsräson” (“Paradoxes of the New State reason”). In: Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen (Journal of International Relations), issues 13 (2006) number 2, pp. 145-176. Cited in: Buchser, Sandra. «Ein Kick gegen Schrott». (“A kick against junk”). In: Zeit-Fragen (Current Concerns) No. 25, 11 June 2012.
4 Bieber, T. (2010). Sanfte Steuerungsmechanismen in der Bildungspolitik. Die PISA-Studie und der Bologna Prozess in der Schweiz (Soft steering mechanisms in education policy. The PISA study and the Bologna process in Switzerland). University of Bremen: TranState Working Papers No. 117. SRA SfB597.
5 cf. Bonfranchi, Riccardo/Perret, Eliane. Heilpädagogik im Dialog. Praktische Erfahrungen, theoretische Grundlagen und aktuelle Diskurse (Curative Pedagogy in dialogue. Practical experiences, theoretical foundations and current discourses). Bielefeld: Athena-Verlag, 2021, pp. 141.
6 cf. Kissling, Beat. Sind Inklusion und Integration in der Schule gescheitert? Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung (Have inclusion and integration in schools failed?). Bern: Hogrefe-Verlag, 2022, pp. 109.



“‘Market instead of State’” was the motto”

by Urs Graf

Without knowledge of the geopolitical connections of the school “reforms”, we turn over details and find no remedy. Not in pedagogy, neither in teacher training and nor in administrative structures. One can, according to the principle of “divide and conquer”, let the semi-informed become tired of blaming each other and continue to pursue the strategic goal.
  Now exactly this statement could be emphasised as pure conspiracy theory, were it not for the many authors (not only in Current Concerns) who repeatedly pointed out these connections.
  Through integration into international agreements and subordination under supranational authorities such as the OECD, WTO, WHO – I was present when this was discussed in the mid-nineties at the Limmathaus in Zurich among SP exponents – they wanted Switzerland “to be liberated of its reform back-log”. While the globalising Left [party] made “cucumber salad out of the state”, the globalising right-wing bourgeoisie favoured New Public Management, the denationalisation of the state. “Market instead of State” was the motto. Serious changes, above especially regarding the basic necessities were omitted from the democratic discussion.
  The rejection of the popular initiatives “Referendum on state treaties” and “Swiss law before international law” was probably only possible through avoidance of a thorough reflection on this issue. It should perhaps be said that this reform school produces not only loser but the winners as well. Compliant agents of this system, because the children no longer grow up as a class community, which strengthens an emotional attachment with everyone and fosters a social conscience.

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