In the Swiss Education System, Your Future is Determined at Age 12

Imagine having to tell a child’s parents that their 12-year-old isn’t going to be attending a University in his/her lifetime — that their son or daughter has been deemed unqualified to continue a normal education.  This is exactly what Sonja Hofstetter had to do, once a year, for about half the students in her sixth grade class.

Our couchsurfing host for three nights in Basel, Sonja recounted some of the intense pressure she experienced as a primary school teacher in Switzerland. Sixth grade, it turns out, is when a crucial decision is made for the future of students in the Swiss education system: whether or not they will pass into the higher level secondary school, or lower level secondary school.

Below, Sonja helps explain some of implications of this practice, the questions it raises, and problems it presents for immigrants in Switzerland. We thought it was an interesting distinction from the American schooling system. Tell us, what do you think?

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8 Responses to In the Swiss Education System, Your Future is Determined at Age 12

  1. pH says:

    There are some very strong aspects to that system, actually. While I understand the point that the individual may need to work harder later to catch up (something the US system does exceptionally well), the Swiss/German approach provides an extremely effective class of technicians and skilled workers; that’s one of the great weaknesses of the US system, which stigmatizes folks if they do not go to college. As a result, we have millions of 18 to 21 year olds across America who really have not interest in the educational value of college, wasting critical years roaming campuses with only one thing on their mind: where to I get my next score (fill in: chick/beer/hunk/joint/party/concert…) while costing the subsidizing entity (‘rents/fed/state/rich uncle) somewhere between 40 and 200 G’s. In the end, those people get a degree, but they can’t spell and don’t know how to do anything else. So, while Sonja’s point is well taken, the US system could use some of what she’s talking about. thanks .

  2. EQ says:

    Holland has a very similar system. Just before Jr High, they take placement exams. The children are then placed into technical studies or a more liberal arts curriculum. To dub the categories lower or higher levels is a bit elitist. Children will be more compelled to further their studies in their adapted field. In the dutch system, you have the ability to move between the different fields. If the child does not seem to fit, or retests, he or she can switch paths. The system takes in account that every child has their strength, and plays to it. Does the swiss system allow you to alter paths?

    • Chris Chris says:

      Yes, Sonja mentioned that recently, the Swiss system has started allowing kids who were placed into a curriculum for technical studies at sixth grade to switch paths by taking an exam at the end of their technical training period. However, this doesn’t occur until 10 years or so after the sixth grade placement exam, so the number of people who switch over by that point is quite low.

      The point that PH makes about aimless students in the US system is well-taken, and is something I’ve definitely witnessed firsthand. However, the main question I have about the Swiss system is how many kids would have pursued a liberal arts education if the decision process was delayed from 12 years of age to when they were a bit more mature. Would the ratio of technical students to liberal arts students be different?

  3. MC says:

    I agree with PH. Germany has a very similar system (actually with 3 tracks – one to university, one to “professional universities”, and one to apprenticeships). It bodes well for an economy to have a strong technical and trades sector (just look at the respective economies.) While trades are perceived as less desirable than a university education, I know a number of electricians and plumbers who are happier (and better off!) than many of my university educated colleagues.

  4. Sonja says:

    I agree with PH and MC that the Swiss, German and Austrian education systems are strong on the vocational education path prducing a workforce that is skilled and well-educated in terms of both technical as well as general knowledge. A vocational apprenticeship can still lead to a university degree, a path that is very innovative and desirable because in that way, practical skills meet academic knowledge and produce higly skilled workers.

    However, this has little to do with the fact that a individual’s life cannot be decided upon at age 12. Children often do not develop all their abilities until that age, and immigrant children often need longer time than native speakers to learn certain things. The disadvantages these children face at a young age because ithey don’t start at the same level as most Swiss kids will therefore leave a legacy that can influence their future in a negative way, since the selection process starts too early for them. Same goes for children with learning dissabilities etc. If you are goning to selet the “bright ones” that early, a support system (i.e. language and integration classes) needs to ensure the weaker children have the same possibilities as the stronger ones.

  5. Mike says:

    The American education system appears more fair and egalitarian on the surface, but it’s built on fear and economic inequality. America is a very economically unequal society where the poor have no health coverage and manual workers are expected to compete with large numbers of third world immigrants. The fabled college degree is seen as the way out of the ghetto.

    People should go to university because they want to go and have the aptitute to benefit from it, not because they’re afraid not to go.

  6. schiewe janet says:

    The article does not mention the excellent apprenticeship system in Switzerland, together
    with Germany, the best in Europe. Not all children can go on to higher education. You have
    to be disciplined, study hard, while your friends enjoy the outdoors etc. Most parents want their children to achieve more than they themselves did. Peer pressure.
    Sonja should make an in-depth study of other systems before commenting on the Swiss
    Education. I have taught children English in CH for a long time and from all grades. Some
    go on to University, most to apprenticeships. In my area (Vaud) there are special French
    classes for immigrant children. Kids learn languages quickly.

    In my country UK, when I was young – your future was decided at 11yrs. We did not learn
    languages until later – too late, by then. Here, the immigrant kids end up speaking 3 to
    4 languages as do the Swiss kids – what a bonus!!!!

    No, the grass is not always greener on the other side Sonja.

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