If the ship is on the wrong course

On the Education Report Switzerland 2023

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and curative teacher

At the beginning of March this year, the Education Report 2023 was published, written by the Swiss Coordination Office for Research in Education SKBF.1 On more than 400 pages and almost one and a half kilograms of paper, its findings are presented on more than 500 topics concerning the Swiss education system from primary to tertiary level. Around 120 people were involved in the preparation of the report. Dr Stefan Wolter, Director of the Coordination Office, who has now published the report for the fourth time, had his say on Swiss radio’s “Tagesgespräch”.2 The conversation was not very profound and avoided critical topics – as one has become accustomed to from chat shows. However, the report is a central basis for steering the Swiss education system and must be heeded accordingly. Even if those responsible describe it merely as a neutral report on the achievement of goals, it determines the course or strategy of the education policy of the cantons and the federal government.

“Is the steamship on course?”

Ten years ago, as the moderator noted, Stefan Wolter compared Swiss education to a steamship, a steamship that was sluggish and needed a lot of energy if you wanted to change direction, and it took a long time to slow it down. “Is the steamship on course?” she now asked, to which Wolter replied, astonishingly, “Basically sure. The education system is in pretty good shape.”

I paused and thought of all the problems that are currently being discussed: the glaring shortage of trained teachers; the constantly high turnover of teachers; the still inadequate German language skills of children and young people; the much-criticised Curriculum 21; the falling standards; the large number of unfortunate school leavers who leave compulsory school without sufficient literacy skills; the recurring question of the not really successful integration and promotion of children with special needs, etc.!

Is the steamship probably sailing far away from reality and alone on an ocean of wishful dreams? If the captain has a wrong map in front of him and the compass is not right, then the ship will definitely not reach its destination and in the worst case will be shipwrecked. Clear signs indicate this.

Storm warning should be announced

The starting point for reporting is always measurements and studies, based on Pisa and the associated educational narrative. And they point to a storm warning and an urgent change of course! Since 2000, these Pisa measurements have repeatedly shown that between 15 and 20 % of pupils leave compulsory school with insufficient competences, Wolter said. “This is a cliff we have not yet avoided.” In other words, almost one fifth of all school leavers are not prepared for their further education (be it an apprenticeship, a grammar school or a specialised secondary school) in such a way that they can then complete it. “So we are not quite on target there either. The target has been set since 2005, at 95 %. We oscillate around 90–91 %.” In plain language, these young people still do not have a degree at the age of 25, Wolter noted. So, what now? Storm warning? On the contrary!

If the steamship is no good?

It is striking that in recent years there has been no change of course in education, despite criticism and negative experiences. Only icing on the cake! Discussions are kept flat, a little change here and there: the shortage of teachers is solved with substitutes trained at record speed (who are certainly trying hard!), as is the need for remedial teachers. Adaptations to learning goals are supposed to solve the problem of children who do not keep up in class. Lack of German skills is blurred by early foreign language teaching, and headphones dampen the commotion in the classroom. For children and young people who can’t cope with a lack of guidance, weekly schedules and self-organised learning, a booming tutoring industry jumps into the gap. But never is the question asked: Is the “steamship” we are putting on fit for education at all?

The unfriendly takeover
of the “educational fleet”

In order to undertake a ship’s voyage, to stay with this image, appropriate preparation is needed. In the case of the school reforms that have been underway for at least 30 years, this consisted in a first step of talking down the Swiss school ship, which was sailing well on course, and accusing it of age-related weakness. Therefore, despite all objections, it should be released for scrapping in order to initiate the next step.

Pro Memoria: Swiss schools were previously internationally known for their very high quality. They had not stood still, as was and is suddenly falsely claimed, but had faced the challenges of the time and integrated new findings from pedagogical, didactic and psychological research into the training of teachers and school practice. In keeping with the educational mandate of our direct-democratic country, the gap between high achieving and weaker children was small. The school provided them with the necessary knowledge to participate later as citizens in political debates. Valued as the “school of the people”, it was well anchored in the political system.

The unnecessary change of course of the “school steamer” happened under pressure from the USA, pushing UNESCO out of its leadership role in education in the 1990s and replacing it with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). What should one say about this? Well, sure, it was an “unfriendly takeover” of the “education fleet”, CEO now became the international education (industrial) complex with corresponding connections to the political and economic lobby! From then on, the indicators for the quality of schools were determined by this economic organisation. It designed the Pisa tests for this purpose.3 The tasks set had no connection with the theory and culture of the European educational tradition and the different curricula of the individual countries. It was a comprehensive paradigm shift. Now they were looking to the Anglo-American guidelines. It is still astonishing today that this procedure was approved by the OECD countries, including Switzerland – without a referendum, mind you. Since then, the roadmaps and the course of the reforms have grown out of this: new output-oriented curricula with competences instead of learning objectives – without regard to national circumstances; forms of teaching that aimed at self-activity, were supposed to make the “human capital” of the children and young people transparent and turned the teachers into their servants or coal shippers on the school ship; Schools with corporate structures and a headmaster as CEO and finally regular “quality controls” through the Pisa tests, which were again the occasion for a new push for reform, always oriented towards the Anglo-American education system. This is reflected in the Education Report 2023: technocratic vocabulary, statistics and convoluted texts – no apparent interest in making oneself understood to the clients, namely the taxpayers and, of course, the population directly affected, the parents of children, teachers, apprenticeship trainers and those interested in education issues in general.

A new education steamship is needed

Why? The current system is a flawed construction from the ground up. This is shown by the Education Report 2023. An “education steamer” needs more than “evidence-based studies” with their often poor results in the form of charts and graphs, collected by observing, ticking, testing and counting. There are hundreds of them in the literature list of the education report, each following the same narrative: children and young people are seen as part of the “education steamer system”. If they do not work as desired, the system is given a push, or as Stefan Wolter puts it: “It takes a lot of patience, because you have to imagine that if you intervene somewhere in the system, depending on where, and depending on the goal, the consequences can range from 4–5 to 15 years apart. I’ll make an example: If, for example, you make an intervention in early childhood education in the hope that these people will later complete a super-mandatory education, then you practically have to wait 20 years to see whether the intervention has paid off.”4

The moderator went on to ask him about a measure taken 20 or 15 years ago of which one could say today: that was good, that made a difference. “Broadcasting break!” Wolter didn’t know any and once again talked himself out of it with the long-time horizons. One is speechless!

Without tunnel vision develop new prospects

The stocktaking shows that many things have gone wrong in recent decades. There are many analyses of the reasons.5 Now it takes courage to look without tunnel vision. It is worth it! Many serious researchers have honestly and carefully addressed the questions at hand in recent years and provided answers, taking an unbiased and independent view of the whole. And we cannot continue to overlook this: Any educational reform must be based on a developmental psychological foundation, which is based on the social nature of human beings.6 This is what is missing in the failing “education steamer” as described in the Education Report 2023. It assumes a “technical” image of the child, a component of the system, where public spirit and other interpersonal “competences” are seen at best as a means to an end.

But this is not the way to grow up fellow human beings that our world would need, today more than ever!  And here the school is asked to do its part as an educational institution that grants everyone the right to education – real education. Building on this, entirely new, contemporary prospects would arise for today’s problems in school practice and education.  •

1 skbf. (2023) Bildungsbericht Schweiz 2023 (Education Report Switzerland 2023). Aarau: Swiss Coordination Office for Education Research.
2 https://swisscows.com/de/web?query=Tagesgespr%C3%A4ch+Stefan+Wolter (retrieved 5 May 2023). The passages from the daily talk quoted below have been translated into written language by the author from the conversation conducted in dialect.
3 cf. Langer, R. (ed.) “Warum tun die das?”Governanceanalysen zum Steuerungshandeln in der Schulentwicklung. (“Why are they doing that?” Governance analyses of steering action in school development.) Berlin, Heidelberg 2008, Springer
4 Stefan Wolter in Tagesgespräch SRF 1 of 5 May 2023
5 cf. Bonfranchi, R./Perret, E. Heilpädagogik im Dialog. (Curative Education in Dialogue.) Oberhausen 2021, Athena-wbv
6 cf. Kissling, B. Sind Inklusion und Integration in der Schule gescheitert? Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung. (Are inclusion and integration in schools a failure? A critical examination.) Bern 2022, Hogrefe, p. 109–162

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