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HomeNewsManuela Freihofer: England’s contempt for learning a trade is its fatal flaw

Manuela Freihofer: England’s contempt for learning a trade is its fatal flaw


As a Swiss teacher, I was most interested to learn of Theresa May’s wish to extend grammar school provision in England. Grammar schools are an intrinsic part of our school system in Switzerland. For me, the current debate in England has been both baffling and intriguing. Some of the attacks on a selective school system by your educational specialists, commentators and interest groups have been difficult for me to understand.

Children have to be taught in line with their abilities and it is a fact that individuals have different talents, interests and abilities. Why is this simple fact causing so much acrimonious debate in England? Differentiating pupils on this basis does not have anything to do with discrimination. On the contrary, equal opportunities guarantee that each child can choose the path that suits its talents, interests and abilities best and it goes without saying that regardless of their backgrounds, children with academic aptitude should have the opportunity of entering an academic school – a grammar school.

There are various ways of determining who would benefit from a grammar school, with an entrance examination being just one possibility. There are others. One might be, for example, the average marks in key subjects in the last year of primary school. These, used in combination with the headteacher’s recommendation, could form the basis for a transferral. In addition, there is the possibility of a trial period after having entered grammar school.  Alternatively, a school might just require a satisfactory completion of the first year in grammar school. Of course, a combination of different approaches is possible. All of them have advantages and disadvantages.

A school system, however, that is based on the notion that ‘equal opportunities’ is synonymous with ‘all individuals achieving the same’ will fail those who are not able to perform to the required standard and, also, those who can outperform it.

How can a school system meet the needs of all children? Switzerland’s answer is to provides a ‘dual system’. At secondary level there is both an academic and a vocational pathway. Two thirds of the Swiss children choose vocational education and training (VET). This provides an education in which one or two days classroom instruction is combined with workplace training. There are 250 VET programmes from which to choose. They cover a wide range of vocational learning, from commercial and retail employment to health and social care work, from training towards being an electrician, a cook, a carpenter, a plumber or a gardener to being a dental assistant or a draughtsman. The range of opportunities is vast and with a graduation rate of over 90 per cent, this system is highly successful.

The close cooperation of the Swiss Confederation (responsible for strategic management and development), the cantons (implementation and supervision, including 75 per cent of funding) and professional organisations (curricula and apprenticeships), make this success possible. They, also, guarantee that the education matches the need of the labour market in terms of occupational skills and the number of available jobs. As a consequence, Switzerland has a low youth unemployment rate.

Another feature making the vocational pathway so attractive is that it can lead on to higher education at one of the Swiss universities of applied sciences (UAS). Vocational school leavers gaining some additional qualifications may, also, apply to one of the cantonal universities or the two federal institutes of technology (ETH Zurich, or EFP Lausanne).

OECD studies confirm the strength of the Swiss system and the fact that other countries, including Germany and the strongest performing education systems of the Asia Pacific, offer similar academic-vocational pathways, at some stage of their secondary school system, is testament to its appeal and to its success.

Adapting it for England, however, may not be easy since the value system for education in these other countries is different. In particular, the esteem vocational training has is a lot lower in England than in Switzerland, Germany or the Asia Pacific.

England’s over-reliance on skilled personnel from overseas indicates that there might be a lesson to be learnt from Switzerland’s two-pathway secondary system of grammar schools alongside vocational schools. One thing for sure is that we do not regard our system as either unfair or discriminatory. We regard it as a bit of common sense.

(Image: WorldSkills UK)

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Manuela Freihofer
Manuela Freihofer
Manuela Freihofer is a grammar school teacher in Switzerland.

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