Happy without a head

26th June 1998 at 01:00
The Swiss have a very efficient way of avoiding bureaucracy in schools - they take their telephones off the hook.

Zurich canton, visited last week by the cross-party education select committee, has no headteachers or secretaries - or schools. The basic unit of education is the classroom. One teacher may volunteer to keep the phone, but a child will probably answer it.

As one previous visitor, a Barking and Dagenham inspector, noted: "Many administrative procedures seen in this country are simply not done or carried out by the local education office."

Margaret Hodge, the committee's chair, and six of its members, were in the northern Swiss city as part of their inquiry into the future role of headteachers. Valerie Davey, MP for Bristol West, said: "The discussion in the committee had been whether a head should be the administrative or pedagogic leader. To ask whether they are necessary at all is a very refreshing point to start."

Paradoxically, the visit to the Land (or German-speaking canton) with no heads co-incided with pressures from local politicians to accept school managers. At present classroom teachers vote for a leader, a first among equals, to represent them with the school board, the employer. Somebody else volunteers to make sure the stock cupboard is full. Only the grammar schools (gymnasiums) have heads.

This was amply illustrated when the coach containing the seven MPs rolled up to Apfelbaum primary. There was no reception, security or school secretary and all the staff were too busy teaching to meet the group. At breaktime, Ruth Osterwalder appeared and invited the group to split up and observe lessons.

The MPs had been given a programme of visits to meet teachers, education officials and politicians. But even Swiss precision could not budget for poisoned peaches which put one school out of commission. Another was quickly found.

The snapshot gained by the three hectic days was of an idyll on the brink of the real world. The teachers are the best paid in Europe (50 per cent better in real terms than in Britain). Switzerland spends 6 per cent of its GDP on education - twice as much as Britain. The schools are small and so are classes. One teacher in a lower secondary, with 22 in his class, said:

"It would be impossible to teach 25 or more." And despite having no heads and no whole school ethos, 11-year-old Swiss children are among the most literate and numerate in Europe.

The canton provides syllabuses, textbooks, worksheets and lesson plans, but as one teacher put it: "I am like a small king in my classroom."

Children stay with the same teacher for three years and even in lower secondary will only be taught by two teachers. They say this allows them to get to know the children well and parents can call the teacher at home to discuss problems. It was this level of pastoral care that impressed some of the MPs.

Last year Switzerland recorded an unprecedented 5.3 per cent unemployment, a figure many other European countries would dream of having. But this is causing concern and already there is a pay freeze for teachers and others in the public sector.

Professor Ernst Buschor, Zurich canton's right-wing education minister, wants heads, not only because he believes they will cut costs, for example in education officials' jobs, but also because they will act as agents of change. He accepts that class sizes will have to rise.

But, by the end of the trip when this view was articulated by Lutz Oertel, of the Zurich Teacher Training Facility, the MPs had been converted to the cosy, classroom-centred system and were warning against the introduction of headteachers.

There were also other surprises. The land best known for cuckoo clocks, cheese with holes and yodelling showed that even Zurich has its zany side - 800 life-sized model cows dotted the streets. But for some reason the committee declined to pose next to them.

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