In praise of clockwork training

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Gruess Gott! I address you from the top of an Alp, quite my favourite place at this time of year, though it rarely actually happens. I got imprinted with love of the Swiss during my teens when my Dad worked in Berne, and every few years the urge arises to grit the teeth and pay Swiss prices for the clockwork wonderfulness of a Swiss week. The trains work, the postbuses work, the snow-blowers work, the woodpiles are neat, the shopkeepers solicitous. And for those who observe the tangled world of education it is profoundly reassuring to watch the ski-schools. From my perch on the nursery slopes, I have been studying them as a seductive model of a particular kind of educational perfection.

For the Swiss believe, above all, in training. Everyone is trained for something. Plumbers, builders, electricians, decorators, carpenters and other craftsmen serve formal apprenticeships so rigorous that Swiss householders rarely attempt DIY because bodging is simply not done. Nobody makes even the most unpretentious hillside cheese without years of sitting at the feet of some tyrannical old mountain beardie who holds the timeless cheese wisdom in his gnarled fist. Bankers and checkout staff, hoteliers and maids, dressmakers and kindergarten teachers undergo so much training it would make your eyes water: the language skills alone required of schoolteachers are downright embarrassing to list.

So when it comes to enrolling in the Schweizer Ski und Snowboard Schuele, you can forget any namby-pamby rubbish about personal discovery or individual learning adventures or cascading and peer education. There is an instructor, and there is a row of learners, and the instructor's way is the way it will be done. Ordnung muss sein!

You watch this at work with the little children, three and four year olds in the Pulvo Club pen. They surround their instructress, who rattles away in four languages with no apparent effort and demonstrates such basic skills as hopping from foot to foot, falling over on your back with your legs in the air, clutching the drag-lift rope and sliding downhill in your teeny boots and two-foot skis. Voices are never raised, smiles never slip, but authority is absolute. No toddler defies Christiane or Liesl. Before long they are following her down the big hill, turning when she turns, going "Whoo!" when she instructs them to go "Whoo!", and lining up at the bottom again in the correct order, eyes front.

It reminded me of the period when, just before primary school, I craftily enrolled each child in turn in a dancing class of high local renown. It seemed to me that after the freeweheeling playgroup approach ("Do you want to come to the story corner? all right, dear, stay with the Playdough") it would be helpful to their eventual reception teacher if they learned that orders is orders. For when Mrs Goddard said "point your toes" you damn well pointed them, and they stayed pointed until otherwise instructed. There may well have been a touch of Swiss in Mrs G.

Anyhow, then you come to the adult classes, in which I nervously re-enrolled after a ski gap of 35 years . And it was just as I remembered from my teens: shorter skis but no variation in the teaching style. You watch the instructor, you do what he tells you. You do not try and do something flashier, or more agreeable to your own instincts. If he says put your weight on the downhill ski, top ski forward, bend from the waist and keep your knees still, that is what you do. If you don't, even if you're still upright and beaming at the end of your turn, he slithers down the line accusingly and points a stick. "You! Snowplough not wide enough. You! Weight more downhill! You! Better!"

And if you think - as some impatient man in a woolly hat always does - that you would be OK in the higher class which goes right up the big lift, this theory will get you nowhere unless Hans or Werner agrees. The fact that you are paying cuts absolutely no ice. You can book a private lesson for three times the money if you like, but if Sir doesn't want to take you up the Grabbengruntcherberg lift, his word is law. You will remain on the bunny-run until he is totally satisfied with not only the efficiency but the style of your traverse, turn, sideslip and stop.

And do you know, it is strangely restful? And at the end of it, you have internalised your instructor so much that an inner voice rebukes you sharply whenever ze knees slip out of line. Yes, yes, I know it would never do in the real, intellectual questing, child-centred world of caring education. I will be over it soon . But for one week, every few years, I get the heady sensation that I have seen the past - and it works ...

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