You're on your own now

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Would you leave your pupils in charge of their own schooling for an entire term? Faced with drastic budget cuts, that's just what one school in Switzerland decided to do. Frances Mechan-Schmidt finds out what happens when the teachers pack up and let the students run things

Even Harry Potter might envy the charmed life Marco Jucker led last term.

The 17-year-old got up when it suited him, had a siesta after lunch, skived off most afternoons and burned the midnight oil to keep up with his studies. But this bohemian lifestyle didn't do his schooling any harm.

Quite the reverse: his marks improved as time went on. And his teachers didn't object - they weren't at school either.

This bizarre-sounding set-up started life as a pilot project designed to save money in a Swiss school, but was such a success it's just been given the green light to expand and continue for another three years.

The idea of a do-it-yourself term where pupils had to go it alone for six months, organising themselves in six subjects (maths, German, English, French, sport and a specialist subject) without the aid of any teachers, was a last-ditch attempt by the Swiss grammar school Kantonsschule Zuercher Oberland (the KZO) to cope with cuts of pound;400,000 a year; roughly 7 per cent of its total budget.

At first sight the KZO, situated in pleasant, rural surroundings about 20 miles south-east of Zurich, looks prosperous enough. The modern building, made of glass and wood, is home to nearly 1,150 pupils and around 170 teachers. Inside, wide, functionally designed corridors lead into sunlit offices and classrooms with simple, modern furnishings; the school's multimedia library is stacked with books, CDs and computers.

But the attractive surroundings hide an unpleasant truth: KZO is in the grip of a financial crisis. Over the past few years the canton of Zurich has been imposing big budget cuts on schools as part of a wider campaign to reduce public spending. Many extracurricular activities at the school had to go, project weeks disappeared, teachers' hours and pay were cut. "But it still wasn't enough," admits a rueful Martin Zimmermann, KZO's deputy head and co-ordinator of the pilot project, "and that's when we hit on the idea of doing away with teachers, as it were, and letting the older children take responsibility for their own work."

The concept sounds deceptively simple: pupils were given a description of the coursework to be covered at the beginning of the term and the targets to be reached, and the rest was up to them. Teachers all but vanished from the scene, except for weekly consultation sessions and contact by email.

Left to themselves, pupils took to working in empty classrooms, the multimedia library and even outside on the lawn. They could come and go as they pleased and work whenever and however they liked. Many studied in groups and developed an intense, highly concentrated approach to work.

Others progressed more quickly and effectively on their own, enjoying the contrast to the classroom where the pace can lag when discussions involve 20 or more pupils.

Quite a few, like Marco Jucker, wallowed in the free afternoons and the sudden release from the normally punishing Swiss school day, which starts at 7.30am and goes on to 4pm or 5pm. Others, like Laura Burgener, were initially thrown off balance by the overwhelming amount of free time. But eventually she managed to organise her work and master new learning techniques as she got to grips with her self-determined routine.

A lot of work went on behind the scenes, despite the classes being "teacherless". In addition to their classes elsewhere in school, the teachers in charge of the three "DIY" groups gave up much free time at home answering emails, holding discussions with colleagues and monitoring pupils' progress.

"A unique project like this obviously required teachers to invest a lot of extra time and effort," says Martin Zimmermann, who admits that while some teachers found the idea challenging and exciting, happily putting in a lot of work, others found it a great strain.

And the teacher input didn't stop there; many recommended books and materials that were suitable for the project's autodidactic ethos. They also devised new material and self-teaching manuals, especially in maths, though not always with the hoped-for results. "We still found that pupils specialising in science coped better in maths than those specialising in classics or modern languages," says Maria Cannizzo, who taught maths to all three classes. "That didn't change during the project."

Conversely, all the pupils performed better in German and foreign languages, regardless of their specialist subject. Pupils believe this was because they were free to choose their own books and projects. "I noticed that pupils read and wrote a lot more during the DIY term," says Ueli Hepp, an English teacher. Mirko Reichlin, whose specialist subject is physics, says he normally reads one or two books a term, "but in German I read five books, in English three".

Mr Hepp says that some literary analyses were so good that he'll be using them himself in future lessons. The volume and breadth of the work astonished him. "Pupils loved the individual aspect, deciding what to learn and how to go about it."

The wide press coverage given to the pilot - the only one of its kind in Switzerland - attracted the attention of the canton education authorities, who decided to have the project monitored by the department of education at the University of Zurich. They also commissioned a report by an independent committee. This time, the news was good for the KZO: both the university report and the external evaluation team concluded that pupils' academic results were on a par with those achieved using conventional methods, with the exception of maths, where language specialists had struggled to meet the demands of DIY coursework. Both reports emphasised the marked change in pupils' attitude to their work. The only disappointment was the meagre amount of money saved.

The costs of setting up the project and devising much of their own material meant the school saved only around pound;18,000, says Mr Zimmermann; so the KZO is still a long way off the pound;400,000 annual budget cut demanded by the authorities.

Nevertheless, the project is to be extended from three to 10 classes and will carry on until 2008. The school is confident that by then the scheme will be saving it around pound;70,000 a year.

So was it worth the pain for the pupils involved? One participant describes how he was "shit scared" at the idea of being left alone to cope with all his work, then "pleasantly surprised" at how he managed in the end.

Now he's looking forward to sitting back and seeing how the next lot do.

For further information contact Martin Zimmermann on martin.zimmermann@kzo.ch

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