Switzerland is without doubt a world leader in apprenticeships, be they manual or technical, in catering, health care or IT. Trainee masons, electricians, technicians and carpenters make their way through vocational colleges to universities of applied sciences (“Fachhochschule”, “haute école spécialisée”, “scuola universitaria specializzata”) and end up as construction-site managers, engineers or IT specialists with a job for life and a salary that would fill their European peers with envy.
This is why 40% of the population quite rightly go in for crafts, technical professions or hotel management. The Lausanne Hotel Management College, incidentally a university of applied sciences (“Fachhochschule”, “haute école spécialisée”, “scuola universitaria specializzata”), is known to be the world’s best.
70% of Swiss undergo vocational training (apprenticeships and internships)
Switzerland is a global leader in vocational training, which 70% of the population embark on after completing their compulsory education (“obligatorische Schulzeit”) at comprehensive primary and mostly selective lower secondary schools (“Sekundarschule”, “école secondaire”, “scuola media”). At Switzerland’s lower secondary schools (with the exception of Geneva and Ticino), students are mainly prepared for apprenticeships or specialised middle schools with extended internships (“Fachmittelschule”, “école de culture générale”, “scuola specializzata”). Many of the leavers continue with a commercial or IT apprenticeship, more than a third with manual apprenticeships (including catering and health care) and slightly more than a quarter transfer to academic elite schools (“Gymnasium”, “lycée”, “liceo”) or specialised middle schools (“Fachmittelschulen”, “école de culture générale”, “scuola specializzata”). Swiss apprenticeships combine vocational training with further education (“duale Bildung”, “formation duale”,“ formazione duale”). Unlike the UK, Switzerland produces most of its skilled manual workers and technicians and meets domestic demand. However, it probably compels too many to go in for a commercial apprenticeship.
Vocational school teachers in Switzerland have to meet rigorous national standards
As 70% of all Swiss students transfer from lower secondary schools to vocational training and vocational middle schools, they enter a different world in which national standards are suddenly the norm.
Vocational schools enjoy little or no freedom in what they teach. Their students spend three to four years preparing for the challenging academic and practical examinations at the end of their apprenticeships. The federal Car Mechanic Diploma is set by Berne just as much as the commercial university entrance examination (“Kaufmännische Berufsmatura”, “maturité professionnelle commerciale”, “maturità professionale commerciale”).
A good Swiss vocational school (“Berufsschule”, “école professionnelle”, “scuola professionale”) functions much more like UK schools. Though continuous assessment by teachers and master craftspeople plays an important part in the final grade, students will also have to face exacting national examinations. Students of a good vocational school class will collectively pass their final examinations well. As there is external assessment there is more room for a partnership between teachers and students. However, even at vocational colleges the principal and his deputy will keep a very low profile compared to their UK counterparts.
Teenagers grow up as they serve apprenticeships
One of the extraordinary benefits of the Swiss apprenticeship system is that teenagers come into contact with real life while continuing their education. By the age of 18 they will have been through one of the world’s most sophisticated vocational-training schemes and know how to do a practical job to the highest standards, analyse and describe the stages of a professional activity and even manage a project of their choice (teenagers are required to do so as part of all Swiss apprenticeships!). For students who are less academically inclined, apprenticeships are a way to gain confidence and develop a sense of worth. Thanks to the extraordinary permeability of the Swiss educational system, apprenticeships lead on to higher vocational and higher general education for those who wish. The merits of this system can also be seen in the low youth unemployment rate, though there is some argument about this in academic circles. If there are downsides to this system, they lie in culture and general education. The main reason for this is time, as teenagers training on the job to become IT specialists will have to cover general-education subjects in a day or two per week, rather than full-time.
Too many commercial apprentices with increasingly bleak prospects
Teenagers who do not make it into academic elite schools (“Gymnasium”, “lycée”, “liceo”) in their second or final year of lower secondary school are very often advised to opt for commercial apprenticeships by their teachers or by careers counsellors. About half of all leavers go through commercial apprenticeships (“kaufmännische Lehre”, “apprentissage commerciale”, “apprendistato commerciale”) at the KV Business School (“Kaufmännischer Verein”, “société des employés de commerce”, “societa impiegati commercio”). Academically stronger commercial apprentices take the vocational university entrance examination (“Berufsmatura”.“maturité professionnelle”, “maturità professionale”) and continue at a university for applied sciences (“Fachhochschule”, “hautes écoles spécialisées”, “scuola universitaria professionale”). Both the KV and Swiss “Fachhochschulen” have high academic standards. Unfortunately, Swiss banks and insurance companies need fewer and fewer commercial workers and tend to prefer immigrant academics with “real” university degrees in Business Studies to Swiss “Fachhochschule” graduates, when it comes to staffing management.
Most apprenticeships have little time for culture
The lack of interest in culture at Swiss lower secondary schools is reinforced by most apprenticeships, including the commercial programme. Even students who opt for the commercial university entrance examination (“kaufmännische Berufsmaturität”, “maturité professionnelle commerciale”, “maturità professionale commerciale”) have to study much of the literature of their first language with very little support from their teachers. They are tested in five major works of literature, but only one or two are covered in class for want of time. Music and art mostly fall by the wayside, and more recently the federal authority in Berne governing the vocational university entrance exams (“Berufsmaturität”, “maturité professionnelle”, “maturità professionale”) has asked commercial schools to cut down even on optional cultural subjects. Ordinary commercial apprentices are no longer taught the literature of their first language. It comes as no surprise that the situation is even more pronounced in manual apprenticeships where apprentices neither read literature in their first language nor engage in any other cultural pursuits.
Written by Robin Hull, author of ‘A Guide to the Swiss educational system’.
This is an excerpt from the only overview of the Swiss educational system in English currently in existence for parents with an international background. It can be ordered on www.guideto.ch