Parents make mark and ruffle feathers

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Swiss citizens have voted overwhelmingly to reinstate traditional marking in their schools. Nicholas Tate is not in agreement

Geneva has just had one of its periodic popular referendums. The city has been plastered with posters urging electors to vote Oui or Non to a multiplicity of propositions, some about federal Swiss issues and some of concern only to our largely self-governing "republic and canton".

This time, all federal issues, which included immigration and asylum, have been overshadowed by an important local issue: how children in Geneva's state primary schools should be assessed. This has dominated the local press for weeks, people rushing to the city's news stands to read the latest report on the battle between various types of marking system.

Supporters of the return to old-fashioned marks have been well funded. It became tedious driving into work behind buses with Vote Yes adverts in which Madame X, a local nurse, and Monsieur Y, a parking attendant, kept telling me how a return to proper marking would give their children a clear framework and targets to aim for.

The battle has been between the main teachers' union and Geneva's dynamic young socialist education minister on the one hand, and on the other a coalition of parents and teachers clamouring for an end to what they feel to be the child-centred progressivism of the educational establishment.

In recent years, primary pupils have been assessed, but not marked, on the traditional Swiss one-to-six scale - six is the top - in use in secondaries and public exams. Some use of marks returned last year under pressure from the pro-marks lobby group. But this wasn't enough for them.

The referendum proposition was for all pieces of work to be marked one to six, for summary marks to be given at the end of each year, for children to be given their overall average mark ("Well done, Chantal. You are a six this year"; "Sorry, Julien, at two you are well below average") and for pupils repeating years they had "failed", to be once more permissible.

The proponents of the referendum have insisted that marks will re-install a lost academic rigour. Its opponents have focused on the negative effects of constant re-inforcement of failure.

At the time of writing, the results of the vote have just been announced.

An overwhelming majority of citizens have supported the return to traditional marking. The vote to do so was highest in the wealthiest parts of the canton and lowest in the poorest, but in no local area did the Nos outnumber the Yeses.

The organisers of the referendum have described the vote as a revenge for 1968, the high point of left-wing progressivism for many Francophones. They are calling for the heads of top education officials and of "liberal"

teacher trainers in the University of Geneva, a demand resisted by our brave, if defeated, young minister.

The president of the teachers' union has responded by telling the press that the Geneva electorate are like "turkeys who have voted for Christmas"

and that many of his primary school members will now be seeking asylum in Finland, a country well-known for teacher autonomy, progressive methods and top results.

But the people have made their choice. It being Switzerland, no one contests that, even if they regret it. The new marking system will thus begin in August 2007.

For an English educationist, the debate has been full of echoes of our own battles over national tests. I found myself wondering what would have happened if we had had a referendum with Chris Woodhead on the back of some buses and the late Ted Wragg on others. What is so very different here in Geneva is the opening up of highly specific issues of educational practice to the scrutiny of voters' opinions, and the extent to which this can impose limitations on teachers' autonomy. All this, of course, is at a very local level, in a community of less than half a million. I have found it both very appealing and highly alien.

The local press has repeatedly asked me what my own, very different, international school feels about this issue. For reasons of diplomacy - one can't afford to make enemies in small communities - we kept totally silent until the end. Eventually, though, we could contain ourselves no longer and replied to the effect that, no, we did not use marks in our primary sections, but that this did not seem to stop our students from progressing and achieving good results.

Now that the dust has settled, I see how irrelevant much of the debate has been. Whether or not one uses marks, it is the diagnostic and formative use of any assessment system that matters, the quality of teaching that precedes and succeeds assessment, and the degree to which one is able to individualise one's instruction to meet each child's needs and learning styles.

Perhaps we need another referendum, but not just yet please.

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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