Please do not drift into visions!

by Carl Bossard*

“Was there something?” many are asking. A teacher’s shortage? An emergency situation? Those responsible for education act as if nothing had happened – and take refuge in visions. Some astonish enraged.
    It has been the same picture for years: just before the summer holidays, school administrators are flustered and there is a frantic search for teachers. Nothing but loud silence from the staffs. Those responsible on site, on the other hand, are fighting for every available assistant. The schools must be able to start after the holidays, the children must have a teacher in front of them. With enormous effort, they succeed. People without training are also hired. The education officials take it in their stride. The caravan moves on.

Where is the view of the concrete?

Why this trembling again and again? Why this tragedy? One can only speculate and interprete – and ask oneself: Is education policy at all interested in the quality of our schools and the concrete teaching on site? Anyone who listened to the NZZ panel on the topic of “Achievement-oriented society – what kind of school does man need?” in mid-September has serious doubts.1 The course of the discussion speaks volumes: there was a lot of talk about visions and about developing children’s potential better and more humanely, and above all there were calls for even more funding – this in what is already the most expensive education system in the world.
    The director of the Zurich Departmenet of Education, Silvia Steiner, stated: “The Swiss school system is basically on a very good path. We have a huge support and promotion system; we have the instruments to correct.” Not a (self-)critical word, no comment on the worries and hardships on the pedagogical ground floor, no transversal view of the school’s deficits and the fact, for example, that even intelligent children often have large gaps in the basic skills of arithmetic and writing at the end of primary school. If they have mastered these basics, it is not uncommon due to dedicated parents or private learning institutes to be behind them – and unfortunately far too few lessons that are effective for learning. Incidentally, about 35 per cent of pupils today receive private tuition. What this means for the supposedly so important equality of opportunity is self-evident.

Scandal of an education
policy that negates everyday life

There is also no mention of the consequences of integrating very different, sometimes very difficult children into the same class - with the horrendous administrative coordination effort and the sometimes-serious disruptions to teaching. The “Beobachter” even speaks of the “hullabaloo in the classroom” and of the fact that today there is rarely a class “in which one can concentrate on teaching the subject matter”.2 But who is surprised about that when Silvia Steiner takes integration for granted in the sense of a human right. Steiner literally: “For me, inclusive education is not a project, but a human right.”3 For ideological reasons, any adjustment or correction is out of the question. For dogmatic reasons, there’s only one thing to do: carry on as before! Collateral damage and serious learning deficits in basic cultural competencies do not matter.
    And this form of teaching is one of the reasons for the noticeable flight of many teachers from the classroom. Those in charge are ignoring this too. Their motto: hear nothing, see nothing and say nothing – this is the scandal of an education policy that takes refuge in visions and negates everyday life while pretending that everything is fine – as has been the case for years with early French, for example.

Regarding certain deficits
there is a system failure

What would be needed? Many people miss a critical-analytical and clear view of the current state of affairs in Swiss education policy, and that is a systemic and radically honest one. For years, schools have been restructured and reformed – in hundreds of individual steps. What has been the overall result of these innovations? And why does Switzerland constantly fall behind in international comparative studies?
    To give just one example, it is not acceptable that one in five of our 15-year-olds leaves school without the necessary basic language skills. This is simply “a systemic failure”, as Stefan C. Wolter, Director of the Swiss Coordination Office for Education Research, gets to the heart of it. He adds: “With an average class size of 19 pupils, two to three pupils per class in Switzerland can only read and write inadequately when they finish school.” Those responsible for education remain silent. The systemic failure does not seem to bother them. Hardly anyone enquires about the reasons for the failure.

The critical view
on the teacher’s training colleges

A second important focus would be on the question of where mistakes are made in training and why so many young teachers leave the classroom so quickly: seven percent per year, mostly in the first three to five years of the profession. We know that we don’t have too few trained teachers, we have too many who leave the profession too quickly or don’t even take it up. The teacher’s training colleges have become a kind of quick course for people who don’t want to teach at all. This raises the question: How well prepared are the new teachers for good teaching, and how specifically trained are they when they start their first position?

Recollection of pedagogical freedom

And there is something else that needs to be analysed: How burdensome are the many top-down reforms of recent years? Education has been “standardised” and “administered”. The organisational dominates the pedagogical. The burden on teachers has increased as a result of these reforms, with the increased integration and the dispersal into a multitude of subject areas.
    Many teachers feel trapped in the corset of an artificially constructed complexity that they can no longer cope with. That is why fewer and fewer want to take on the important office of class leaders. Much, too much, is prescribed and imposed from above – or controlled. This minimises pedagogical freedom. And freedom is part of every teacher’s DNA.

An unsparingly honest system analysis

We know: Not everything is running smoothly at our primary and secondary schools. Not at all. Unfortunately, a lot of things are swept under the table or are only said behind closed doors. This does not help us. What we need, however, is neither aesthetic illusions nor visions that are far removed from practical experience; what we need is an honest system analysis, unsparing and radically reality-based. We are not getting anywhere by feigning something like we did up to now. It is always the students who suffer in the school system.

1Niederberger, Matthias. “Welche Schule braucht der Mensch?” (Which school does a person need?), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 17 September 2022, p. 15: The following discussed on the panel chaired by NZZ editor Martin Meyer: Margrit Stamm, educational scientist, Silvia Steiner, Zurich Education Director, Sergio P. Ermotti, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Swiss Re, and Oliver Meier, Building Construction Project Manager Marti AG.
 2Hofer, Julia. “Tohuwabohu im Klassenzimmer” (Classroom mayhem), in: Beobachter 25/2021, p. 92f.
3Pfändler, Nils/Schenkel, Lena. “Ich glaube nicht an Visionen für die Zukunft der Schule” (I do not believe in visions for the future of the school). Interview with Silvia Steiner, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 28 January 2019, p. 15.
Source: Journal 21 of 10 October 2022

*Carl Bossard is the founding director of the Teacher’s Training College Zug. Before that, he was headmaster of the Cantonal Grammar School Nidwalden and director of the Cantonal Grammar School Lucerne. Today he accompanies schools and leads continuing education courses. He deals with questions of school history and education policy.





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