Swiss lesson for teachers

Attitudes to foreign languages are changing, but we have far to go to match other European nations. John Muir reports

Over the past couple of years Highland, along with other authorities in the UK, has hosted primary teachers from the canton of Zurich as part of their training programme to deliver English in Swiss schools. We have made reciprocal visits to their schools.

The Scottish Modern Languages in the Primary School programme has been widely acclaimed and, in line with recommendations in the Scottish Executive report on modern languages, Citizens of a Multilingual World, it is now secure in the 5-14 curriculum. So, how does it compare with the Swiss model?

The aims are the same; namely, to develop children's abilities to use and understand aspects of a modern language by embedding it in the context of the day-to-day curriculum. However, the Zurich training programme for staff is more extensive and more rigorous than the Scottish model.

Courses take place each Friday and Saturday, half during teaching time. The canton does not pay for class cover: these costs have to be met by the school. Teachers are expected to give up two weeks of their holidays and one week of term to take part in a placement in an English-speaking country.

The courses cater for up to four levels of ability but all teachers accepted for the programme already have a high level of competence in English. There are no absolute beginners, nor lapsed learners, such as those challenged by the Scottish programme.

In fact, most primary teachers in Zurich start their careers with a greater knowledge of English than Scottish teachers are likely to attain in a second language, unless our training institutions include it in their courses, as recommended in Citizens of a Multilingual World.

For a variety of reasons, including the mixed ability of our course participants, Scotland decided there would be no accreditation of individual teachers: in effect, no one could be said to have passed or failed. By contrast, the Zurich teachers are assessed after each component and there is a final examination before being granted a formal qualification.

A visit to Zurich gave the chance to spend time in eight classes of pupils, aged nine to 12, and observe lessons in most areas of the curriculum in English, with input in German when appropriate.

The teachers and pupils were highly motivated. High standards were expected and being achieved. All the pupils were actively encouraged, but not coerced, to take part. Lessons, while participative, were frequently more didactic than in most Scottish schools, particularly with the older pupils. Grammatical structures, reading and writing were an integral part of the language curriculum, although on occasions at the expense of understanding. That said, the children were keen to speak in English and to show off their written work.

Classroom observation and discussions with teachers and administrators indicate that the Zurich programme achieves high standards, no doubt helped by living in a culture where using English in speech and songs is fashionable.

For many, English is their third and, among the immigrant population, possibly fourth language. There was some evidence that the latter group were able to transfer language acquisition skills, achieved when learning German, to English, particularly in their ability to restructure sentences.

Switzerland has a well structured curriculum, but Zurich primary teachers expressed concern that many pupils would be demotivated when entering secondary school, particularly when not all primary pupils have benefited from the English programme.

The Zurich pilot has raised a few hackles locally. Charlotte Peter, president of the Zurich Teachers' Association, described the training as "basically solid" but criticised the stay abroad as "far too short to gain adequate teaching experience". The association is also disturbed that teachers have to give up so much of their own time. Despite these concerns and the obvious rigours of the course, the training opportunity is highly valued, with more applicants than places.

John Muir is MLPS co-ordinator for Highland CouncilThe visit to schools in Zurich was supported by British Council funding

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