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Small classes, no computers

Swiss classroom methods may provide a model for the future here. Frances Rafferty joined MPs in Zurich to look for ideas in primary schools

Visiting a school in Switzerland is rather like travelling back to the good old days. You know, children skipping to school with their satchels on their backs, small classes full of eager faces and hands in the air, geometry, neat handwritingIand no computers.

A four-day trip to Zurich can provide only a snapshot of its school system. But the members of the education select committee arrived back in London with plenty of food for thought. The visit's aims were to look at the role of headteachers (Zurich doesn't have them), whole-class teaching and pre-school education. Taking part were committee chairman Margaret Hodge, Labour MPs Caroline Flint, Charlotte Atkins, Valerie Davey and Joe Benton, Conservative Nick St Aubyn and Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster.

There are 26 cantons in Switzerland and thus 26 education systems - however Zurich canton shares many characteristics with its German-speaking counterparts.

The choice was no accident. Mrs Hodge is MP for Barking and Dagenham and members of her local education authority in east London have long been fans of the Swiss system.

The borough has been the pioneer of Swiss-style mathematics after noting that the country's children excelled in international comparisons, The 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMMS) found that English 13-year-olds' results in standardised tests were significantly lower than those in Switzerland.

A visit to a number of primary schools showed why. The classes in Swiss schools are small, between 20 and 22. The method of teaching is interactive whole-class teaching. The teacher uses textbooks and worksheets prepared by the canton. The size of the class means that every child can get involved and take their turn on the state-of-the-art blackboards that all the schools visited had, and participate in the problem being solved.

The teacher will have prepared on the boards a number of activities and, for the younger children, about 20 minutes was spent on each activity. Calculators are not used until they reach lower secondary and the mental arithmetic and number work was very impressive. One class of 10 and 11-year-olds was working out the exchange rates between the Swiss franc and British pound on the board.

The children are taught to act collaboratively and help each other with problems. The schools have support for children with special needs and for some lessons they will be taught separately. Classes are increasingly accepting children whose mother tongue is not German - for example refugees from former Yugoslavia.

In kindergarten, children are prepared for interactive whole-class teaching by lots of circle work - forming a circle and passing messages between each other or writing shapes on each other's backs.

The schools are small and most children can walk or cycle to and from school and go home at lunchtime. In primary school they will have one teacher for three years at a time. In lower secondary they may be taught for three years by one teacher who takes them for arts subjects and another for maths and science. Staff said this enabled them to get to know their children well and assess whether they were keeping up with their classmates. Parents are able to phone their child's teacher at home to discuss their progress.

Attention is paid to presentation and they are taught to write neatly. But most of the MPs, after glancing at primary school workbooks, felt there was a lack of creativity. In one class, the children could all recite a poem and many were able to sing a song in English to their visitors, but when a teacher was asked if they wrote their own poems, she seemed surprised at the suggestion.

The MPs were also amazed at the lack of computers in primary schools. One teacher said they all had PCs at home and another said they needed to learn other things before moving to computers. But to British eyes it was distinctly odd.

Generally, in the German-speaking cantons there are no headteachers. The classroom teacher has great autonomy. The administration is carried out by the school board and the canton provides curricular material. The teachers are fiercely proud of this autonomy - but things may soon change.

Switzerland is beginning to experience unemployment, albeit only 5 per cent. This has not only had a knock-on effect on the apprentice system, vital to vocational education, but it has also shaken the nation's complacency.

In Zurich, the canton's education minister, Ernst Buschor, sees an education system that may have been successful in the past but which now lacks dynamism and ability to change. He wants to introduce headteachers and has started a pilot scheme. One reason is financial. He sees headteachers, together with a form of local management of schools, as a way of saving money, not least by cutting back on education officials.

Teachers do elect a lead teacher - but he or she is a first among equals and usually acts as chairman of school meetings and opens the post. Mr Buschor does not have voting for heads in mind.

Nick St Aubyn, MP for Guildford, sympathised with Mr Buschor's plight. "The role of the head would be to be the agent of change and it could precipitate an avalanche of changes. There is an inertia in the system, an innate conservatism that is not flexible enough to cope with the changes Switzerland may need to compete in the future."

One consequence of introducing heads will be an increase in class size. Valerie Davey, MP for Bristol West, said: "On reflection, it was seeing the effect of having small classes that most interested me. Whole-class interactive teaching could work and children's needs be met. That's the message that I will be left with."


* Kindergarten:four to six-year-olds. Publicly provided, but not compulsory, with 99 per cent of children attending the year before primary school. Average length of attendance is1.8 years.

* primary: seven to 12-year-olds.

* lower secondary from age 13: divided into three streams in classes on the same site. 11 per cent of13-year-olds attend gymnasiums (grammars) * upper secondary from around 16: post-compulsory education. Children can take academic or vocational paths, often linked to an apprentice scheme.

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