Wednesday, September 27, 2006

No Such Thing as a Soggy Sandwich

If you've been in Switzerland, maybe you’ve seen them. Around noon they fill the sidewalks, biking and walking past you in such large numbers you wonder if it’s some kind of chaperone-less fieldtrip. These Swiss children wander freely during their extended lunch hour oblivious such things as soggy sandwiches or the smell of hundreds of bagged lunches being opened in unison.

Leaving the grounds during lunch is just the beginning of the many differences between American and Swiss school systems.

While U.S. schools are known for their winter, spring, and summer vacations, the Swiss kids have breaks all the time. But how one becomes a Swiss teacher is another topic.

Sports break: 2 weeks in February/March
Spring break: 2 weeks in April
Summer break: 5 weeks in July and August.
Fall break: 2 weeks in October
Christmas break: 2 weeks in December/January
Also: local holidays and teacher education days

The hours of the school day differ from canton to canton and even from community to community, but the people in charge say they are about to “harmonize” things.

In Egg, yes, a real town name, the day starts at 8:20 and goes until 11:50. Lunch lasts until 13:30 when students start their afternoon classes and leave around 15:05.

In some communities, one of child may have morning class from 8:00 to 10:00 while the other goes from 10:00 to 12:00. And depending on the grade level, the hours vary as well. (i.e. 4-6th graders must attend class 27 hours a week, while Gymnasium students have 31-33 hours a week) This presents many problems for working parents who hopefully have a grandparent, neighbor, or babysitter on hand.

Besides hours, language is also an issue. Teachers are supposed to teach in High German, but some don’t like it or don’t speak it well so they resort to Swiss German. In 5th grade, all students in German speaking cantons begin the study of French as a second language and start learning English in 7th grade.

After 6th grade (age 12), if Swiss kids are bright enough, they may attend Gymnasium for 6 years (approximately equivalent to high school) by passing an entrance exam that essentially lets them bypass the institution known as junior high. The less fortunate (around 60-80% of students) attend Sekundarschule for 7th-9th grade. But one may also pass into Gymnasium after 8th grade and attend for 4 years.

In general, the bright kids would never be caught dead in a private school. As opposed to the U.S., where private schools often are attended in the place of dangerous or under-funded public schools, private schools in Switzerland are for those who are not good enough to attend a public school. But it seems money can make up for the lack of brilliance—public school is free (yes, there are a few things that are free in Switzerland) whereas private schools can be costly.

Despite the different choices, the Swiss love their rules and therefore, there are a few that every child and parent must follow:
-One year of kindergarten is required (but most Swiss send their children for 2 years from ages 5-6).
-School starts at age seven.
-Nine years of school are required.

Despite what kind of school they attend, most Swiss students have to choose a profession or field of study when they are quite young. Those who pass Gymnasium attend Colleges and Universities and must decide their field of study at 18. An even more difficult situation arises for the student who, after 9th grade at age 15, must decide their field of study and begin an apprenticeship. Because there’s no such thing as “undecided”. Unless of course, they want to cross the Atlantic.


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