Tuesday 21 July 2020

2019-2020 Epilogue: The Mystery of the Missing Zeugnis

Tuesday 14th July 2020, second working day after the end of the school year in Kanton Zürich.

When C left primary school, 7 years ago, he brought home the entire contents of his desk.

If you have read any of the previous posts, you will know that his Klasse 4-6 years were a little…….turbulent…… and although disappointed with how he was streamed into Sek, he was relieved to be leaving the teacher he had had for 3 years.

At that point, July 2013, we were in the middle of building work at home, with tonnes of stuff shoved in the loft, the cellar, the balcony and anywhere there was space for it. The house was completely upside down and we were living in chaos.

We eventually sorted out all the stuff and got the house back in ordnung, but we never found his Grade 6 report, and I spent years wondering what on earth happened to it, as there was plenty of other stuff re-found. But never his report card, which was disappointing, since as report cards go, it was a reasonably good one.

Today, 7 years later, it has arrived in the post, with a note from the Schulverwaltung:
“Ihr Zeugnis der Primarstufe wurde im Schulhaus gefunden. Auf diesem Grund senden wir Ihnen die Unterlagen zu und wünschen Ihnen eine schöne Sommerzeit».

(Your primary school report was found in the schoolhouse. For this reason, we send you the document and wish you a nice summer).

I’ve not stopped laughing all morning. Where else in the world would the local school authorities bother to do that?

All’s well that ends well.

For now, at least.

2019-2020 – Education in the time of Coronvirus

Friday, 11th July 2020

Where were we at the beginning of the school year? Oh yes, that’s right. Joyfully oblivious to what would happen when 2019 became 2020.

J was back working in the bar by the end of October, after his work-related accident in June 2019, and trying to find some direction, which he eventually did in February. I will return to this later.

C was in his last year of his apprenticeship, and therefore the last of his Berufschule (“Profession School”) years. By some miracle he started to realise that if he actually did some work for tests, he usually passed them, reasonably well. (How old was he then? Yes, 18). I was still focussed on being home from work each day to make sure that he actually did his homework (which was still, frustratingly, going on in the main family room) but I knew that this school year would require all manner of patience and tenacity. It wasn’t so much that he needed to be babysat with the homework, but him knowing that I was home to be aware that he was actually doing it. An awareness that we were supporting him without trying to be controlling, if that makes sense. It was a lot of rote learning, so he usually had some worksheets to scan that I then blocked out the answers, reprinted and put into plastic sheets, so that he could practice and repeat the answers. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous for an 18 year old, but I was prepared to do nearly anything to support him getting through this year successfully.

At Berufschule generally students don’t really do traditional subjects, they do apprenticeship-specific subjects, and as a Polymechaniker he was doing A Lot Of Technical Stuff. It’s A Very Technical Apprenticeship, which can be used as a fantastic base to do all sorts of things in the future. However, school hasn’t always been his thing, and he wasn’t very happy about the trigonometry and maths, generally. As he pointed out to me later in the year “Mum. Some of these subjects are actually quite hard. And so are the tests”. Fair point, Boychild. He supplemented his maths with the occasional foray onto Khan Academy, which seemed to help. Just before Christmas, he sat the dreaded “Semesterschlusstest”, which was exams in all his Berufschule subjects, to determine his 7th Semester grades for his report card. And passed. And. Breathe. Part 1.

For his ABU Grade in Semester 7, C had to produce a written extended essay - about 3,000 words, such a quantity of which he’s never had to write in DE before. Ever. ABU is the abbreviation for Allgemeinbildenden Unterricht, which is basically general studies, but covers such brilliant topics as “how to complete your tax return” (essential for Swiss of all ages) and “the Swiss political system and how to vote” (also essential knowledge for Swiss of all ages). They were given a topic, which was “Risks” and he chose to write on the risks of journalism, since he has a cousin who is a professional journalist in Iraq. They had a clear rubric and structure, together with a couple of sessions looking at research methods, and he made a plan to complete the work, which he stuck to. He was pleased with the final product but also had to do a presentation on it to the class, which he found harder, since public speaking is not his favourite thing. But he got through all that fine, which was a relief. And. Breathe. Part 2.

And then 2019 became 2020 and along came COVID-19.

Switzerland officially locked down at midnight on March 16th. OH and I came home to work, which required a rapid remodelling of the spare room to organise a dedicated workspace for OH. J was furloughed. C, however, continued to go to work, and was fortunate enough to live close enough to use his bike, thereby avoiding public transport. The rest of the staff in his factory went onto short hours, but the apprentices didn’t. But let’s be honest, it’s a bit difficult to work from home when your equipment takes up the space of several rooms and weighs many tonnes. His Scouting activities all paused, but the local Musikschule were fantastically efficient at delivering online instrumental lessons and band rehearsal via Zoom almost immediately, which was great, and provided a little more normalcy.

After a strange couple of weeks, his Berufschule managed to get some online teaching sorted out, and he was able to go to school from his bedroom. The entire class were never all there, though, and I was shocked by the number of students never bothering to login and register in class.

He had been due to sit his mock final theoretical exams in March, but they were abandoned by the school, which was actually a shame, as he could have benefitted from the experience of sitting an exam to achieve something “real” and figure out where he needed to improve.

Early in April the Swiss Government announced that this year’s final year apprentices would sit their practical exams (a bit of a misnomer, since most of them stand for a living), but not their theory exams. Their theory marks for the apprenticeship final would be based on an average of their previous semester grades over the length of the apprenticeship. Disappointment about missing out on the sitting-a-real-exam-experience quickly turned to relief when we realised that this meant he couldn’t now fail the whole thing. And. Breathe. Part 3.

We then spent weeks trying to get the dates of the practical exam from the Lehrmeister at work, and eventually were told that this would “only” be 40 hours of exam, instead of the possible 120 hours. 40 hours of practical! For a 19 year old! Anyway, thankfully that all took place in May, with a presentation to an expert a fortnight later about the week’s work and what he had had to make, and how he had done it. However, in the middle of the 5-day-long practical exam, the Berufschule did a U-turn about the theoretical exam, and decided to hold the mock theory exam as the method of obtaining the Semester 8 theory marks. At 2 weeks’ notice.

C had a bit of a meltdown and then pulled himself together when we pointed out to him that he’d already done a lot of learning for the mock before it was originally cancelled. So he sat the theory exam, and got the best grades he’s had, for his Semester 8 report card. Massive relief. And in the same week he heard that he had passed his practical, though we didn’t get the overall grade for another 5 weeks. And. Breathe. Part 4.

He did manage to have a “Schulabschluss” (school leaving party) but neither parents nor Lehrmeisters were invited. So at least he got to say goodbye to his teachers and school friends. And he picked up his final report, which confirmed that he had passed his apprenticeship with a decent mark. And. Breathe. Deeply. Possibly even falling asleep.

The icing on the cake? He has a job. A proper one, as a Polymechaniker at the factory where he trained, in the next town. Which means he can work for a couple of years, get some great work experience, and save for a couple of years while deciding in which direction to go next.

What was going on with J while all this happened? Well, C had had a morning at Berufschule in January, where the final year apprenticeship students were presented with the many and varied options to continue in their education. One of these was to return to school, at “KME – Kantonale Maturitätschule für Erwachsene” – or, as C described it, “Gymi for adults”. Yes, if a student has successfully completed his/her apprenticeship and wants to then go for the academic route, they then have the possibility to go back to school. Literally. And work to attain the Swiss Federal Matura, thus then having a route to university. Whether or not they need to pass an exam to get into this school depends on the type of their apprenticeship and whether or not they have already done BMS (and their BMS final grade). An open day was held at KME at the end of February, just before lockdown, with both boys attending. J decided this was what he wanted, and after applying and an interview, he was accepted. He was furloughed shortly after this, so has had another 4 months off…….. but has been revising French, Maths and Biology ready to start school again in August. He’s read Camus in the original and has been practising Algebra. He’s not quite sharpened his pencils yet, but one step at a time, eh.

It’s quite normal to continue with part work and part education ad infinitum, it seems. Where I am currently working there are several staff in their 20s who work around 80% and are at college the other 20% – and this is years after the apprenticeship stage.

So, a dozen years after our first transition to Swiss education, have we reached our destination? Not our final one, I don’t think. Both young men have the essential bit of paper saying that they have completed the first official further education, which means that other doors can now open, together with, at the age of 21 and 19, 6 and 4 years’ respectively of actual proper work experience. It’s been tough, at times, very, very tough. It’s not where we originally thought they would be, and that’s OK, because we are so very proud of what they have achieved. If anything, they have more paths open to them, having taken the apprenticeship route, than if they had done gymi first time round, which only fast tracks you to university and doesn’t offer other choices.

So, it is finished; after all that breathing, I’m going for a little lie down.

Tuesday 16 July 2019

2018-2019 - our eleventh year

And so we have come to the end of our penultimate year of Swiss schooling. Well that’s Plan A, anyway.

Son no 1, J, has spent the year since he finished his apprenticeship mostly working (albeit not as an Automechatroniker, for which he trained in his apprenticeship). He tried to begin his Swiss military service but was sent home on the first day, having been informed that he needed a whole year after his knee surgery before they would take him. Why the Army couldn’t have told him this when he had contacted them to discuss it during August 2018, so that he could actually have used the year educationally, is beyond us. He is currently recovering from a different, work related accident, and so we wait to see if the same thing will happen in January 2020. In the meantime, he is trying to figure out what to study at higher level; unfortunately his experience of feeling that he had made the “wrong” decision with his choice of Lehr (see previous blog post) has left him with a fear of making the “wrong” educational decision a second time. We have explained to him that now he has one qualification, it’s OK, he can take his time and change paths, and that no harm will come of it. In the meantime we watch, wait and support with as much love and patience as we can.

Son no 2, C, has come to the end of the third year of his four year apprenticeship, and seems to feel quite differently to J about his training going forward. He seems to be getting on well at work, to the extent that he tells us they have asked him if he’s interested in staying on after he has qualified. I’ll guess I’ll let you know about that this time next year. And after 11 years in Swiss school he seems to have finally realised that getting good marks involves doing regular study. Not that we weren’t constantly saying this to both of them ourselves as parents, but - boys and listening. You know where I’m coming from with this. We are aware that the heat will be on him from the beginning of next year and it will be pretty constant until the end – and with him having been in Sek B, we are aware that this will feel like a lot of pressure, which he may find tough. But unlike with his older brother, at least we know what to expect this time, and how we can support him. He still prefers to study at the dining table rather than in his room, where he has every distraction known to man. I would prefer him to study independently in privacy, as I feel he should be doing at the age of 18, but we will do whatever it takes to get him to actually sit down and do it – and focus.

Passing an apprenticeship isn’t a given – one of J’s friends this week has learned that he hasn’t passed and needs to resit a whole year. But what really strikes me is that getting to the end of it successfully is genuinely regarded here as a Big Thing – and rightly so, for with an apprenticeship successfully completed, young people can truly begin their working lives. It is noticeable that during the first two weeks of July, the newspapers are full of congratulations notices from businesses to their young staff for completion of their apprenticeships, and where I am currently working in central ZH, the company intranet announcement of this year’s 12 successful candidates was met with at least 12 congratulations comments from staff.

So – that’s us for another year. Bis bald, ciao, ciao, tchüss tchüss.

Friday 31 August 2018

2012-2018 - what happened?

If anyone is still reading this, thank you for your patience. I know I committed to updating it once a year, but life took over and it fell to the bottom of the list. You might find out why if you have the energy to keep reading, but I do apologise.

Several years have now passed since my last blog entry and so there’s quite a lot to go over, but since I didn’t diarise most of it, it will have to be fairly general. A sort of “we’re all still here and usually thriving” record, which hopefully will be reassuring for some.

As a political aside:
When I wrote my last blog post, 6 years ago, little did we know how the politics of education were changing in Kanton Zürich. Around this time, the Kanton passed a regulation disallowing Swiss and long term foreign residents (C permit holders) from sending their children to international school unless they could prove that they were likely to be moving away from Switzerland in the short term. This was a directive to improve the integration of long term resident foreigners, and ensure access to the Swiss further and higher education for Swiss. I don’t want to comment on the rights and wrongs of this directive, but it meant that 3 smaller international schools in the area closed in the space of 2 years, and if you are a foreigner with a C permit in Kanton Zurich, you can forget sending your child to international school, at least until the end of obligatory schooling (Grade 9) unless you can prove you are about to move away.


Now for the two young people about whom this blog was originally written.

Our elder son, J, is now 19, turning 20 in December.

2012-2018: Sekundarschule A, followed by Lehr.

Obviously with your first child you have no idea what to expect when they hit their teens in terms of growth, hormones, attitude etc. J has always been small (as am I) and had eating issues as a baby and toddler. As he (very slowly) grew he was always far smaller than anyone else his age, and we had been assured that this was just because he had one short parent. However, in Sek 2 his teacher persuaded us to investigate further as he was still tiny, and miles behind physically compared with his classmates. So with J’s agreement, we did.

To cut a long story short, he was referred to PEZZ clinic in Zürich and under their expert and excellent care it was discovered that he wasn’t “just short”. He was actually missing almost an entire hormone to stimulate growth. Thus in the nick of time he was put onto daily growth hormone injections (ouch), the cost of which, because the condition was diagnosed as congenital, had to be funded by IV – a long, laborious and complicated form filling in procedure but thank God for the insurance, as that was the only way of funding such a long and expensive treatment. After a while, this capitulated him into such an extreme puberty and explosion of hormones that we were all left reeling, including him. He grew (and how) – and then his orthodontist was concerned that his growth had been so extreme that all her orthodontic work would be undone, so that was also then – to his great annoyance - extended and strengthened – and also, thankfully, funded by IV (more forms). After 5½ years, in September this year he is expecting to be signed off from the PEZZ clinic, having reached his full potential height.

What happened educationally? Well, thanks to all this going on, his school work wasn’t really his top priority. He sat the Gymi exam again in Sek 2, and then was geared to try again in Sek 3, but in the meantime, most of his friends had lined themselves up apprenticeships.

At this point, I should digress to explain a little. The Swiss system in Secondary school is designed for most of the students to go into vocational training (ie apprenticeships) after Sek, that last for 3-4 years, and give most of the population an actual certified skill by which they can earn their living. More on this later, but the school careers advice for all this process kicks in in Sek 1 (when they are 13), really gets underway in Sek 2 and in Sek 3 is just about done. Each school works closely with the local BIZ (careers office) to structure and advise the students. Yes, they are just 15 at this stage, which is, in my humble view, extremely young. At some point in Sek 2 I had attended an information morning presented in English about the “vocational route” and it was phenomenally useful, setting my mind at rest, as we had already realised that Gymi wasn’t a definite given, and the “vocational” route was completely unfamiliar to us.

So, at the beginning of Sek 3, most of J’s friends had either transferred successfully to Gymi or had lined up apprenticeships so could make the most of the year at school. J was still fretting about his future (and size) but was getting himself out and about doing “Schnuppertage”s (“taster days”) with various businesses – all part of the careers guidance process. In early January he was beginning to get quite desperate, and, having sat an exam to determine his suitability, spent 3 days trialling at the local BMW garage, came home and said he loved it. Then we were asked to go and see the manager of the apprentices there (the “Lehrmeister”). He laid his cards on the table and said that the garage really wanted to hire J as a Lehrling (Apprentice) Automechatroniker (mechanic). J didn’t want to try for Gymi a third time, so after a very long walk, quite a lot of staring at the bottom of a gin and tonic together with long discussion, we agreed and signed him up for the “vocational” route. Another new and scary part of Swiss schooling.

He immediately switched to preparing for the Berufsmatura (BMS) entrance exam and passed, and so in August 2014 he started at Berufsschule one day a week and BMS school in Zurich on Fridays, working long hours at the garage Tuesday-Thursday. He covered technical subjects at Berufsschule and more classical subjects (Maths, French, English, German, History etc) at BMS school.

He tells us now that he wanted to give up in the second year but knew that we wouldn’t let him, which would have been true. 4 years must sometimes seem interminable for young people of this age – after all, it’s longer than they spend in Sekundarschule. However, in the meantime he has learnt to work with a mixed group of people of all ages, backgrounds and intellectual levels (a life skill if ever there was one), and deal with some extremely demanding customers (I did mention that it was a BMW garage didn’t I?) He was regularly called to the front of house to explain technical diagnoses to English speaking customers. His school grades went up and down a bit over the four years but he eventually left the garage on 9th August 2018, having successfully passed both his Apprenticeship and the BMS. The final year was not without its hiccups – a ski accident in February left him in need of knee surgery and off work sick for several months, with him returning full time for the last 6 weeks; so for those months we were organising our own work schedules around driving him to and from school (unheard of in Swiss culture!) so he could actually get the coursework finished and sit his exams. But he passed. He has a skill which he can use to earn his living if he wants to - he doesn’t know if he wants to do this or to change direction - most of his friends are working in the field of their apprenticeship - and he can now look to the future.

Our sons now both have dual citizenship (Swiss / British) so J is scheduled to start his Swiss military service in January, for which, thanks to the nature of his apprenticeship, he is due to be assigned to the vehicles division. So he is presently having a “gap” 5 months, and is hoping to pick up some studenty type work (pulling pints or some such) up to Christmas. Given all that has happened, we will tackle what-happens-after-the-army in due course.

And so to C, who is now 17, turning 18 in December.

2012-2018 Klasse 6, Sekundarschule B, Lehr.

Klasse 6 is all about which direction they are going to go in. We realised that C was never going to be an academic learner, so it would definitely be the Sekundarschule route, but it never crossed my mind that he wouldn’t be earmarked for Sek A until the first parents’ evening that year, one of several where we deliberated long and hard with his teacher about the correct streaming for him. We really pushed for Sek A but his teacher wasn’t sure if he would cope with the pressure, and after a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth we opted for Sek B, hoping that he would be transferred up, a decision that C actively participated in. In truth, I was devastated, feeling we had let him down appallingly by not fighting harder to get him into A – after all, it wasn’t a clear choice at all, or so we were told, and we knew that the options open to him at the end of three years in Sek B would be far more limited than in Sek A. Ultimately, it was the Ausländer parents against a very, very Swiss, very very established teacher. What chance did we realistically have to challenge it?

C started Sek B and was placed in a class of mostly Albanian children (we have a large demographic of Albanians in our Gemeinde) – but – and this was the saving factor – with a new-to-the-school, German/Albanian teacher who was both brilliant and beautiful (I wouldn’t normally mention this but it meant that she had all the boys eating out of her hand, metaphorically speaking, and therefore class behaviour was far better than the average Sek B class). Because she had been brought up in Germany, she spoke and taught in Deutsch rather than Schweizerdüütsch, and she was, frankly, superb. In Sek B they cover most of the same subjects but at a differentiated level to Sek A. In theory, if they sustain an average grade of 5 for an extended period they can move to Sek A - for C this never happened.

He went through all the same process that J had been through with BIZ and choosing an apprenticeship route, and the Schnupperwoche, where students are out on work experience for a whole week in different places, but he remained very undecided (and quite low in himself throughout this period) about what to choose. We attended the Berufsmesse in Oerlikon in the November, but with him coming home still no more inspired.  In the end we opted for some private sessions at BIZ – at no cost to us – where the careers advisor did various personality type tests along with others to determine suitability for an apprenticeship choice (perhaps I should also mention that there are around 400 types of apprenticeships that students can train for, some of which are more popular and/or specialist than others).  His adviser clearly had great expertise so we left them to it – and they eventually concluded on something that included both technical stuff and working with his hands – very obvious to us, since Handarbeit was always one of his favourite subjects at school. So by the end of Sek 2 he was seriously considering Polymechaniker (precision tool maker) and another couple of technical things.

Towards the end of Sek 2 students sit the Stellwerk tests, which are standardised tests - but they are not supposed to include these in an open document, as the results are private. What all potential employers want is the Multicheck results. This is a separate, standardised test, that students can take twice (the parents have to pay a fee of around 100 CHF) and then they can include the best results with their apprenticeship applications – but there’s no point doing these until the end of Sek 2, as they haven’t finished the coursework until then.

As with J, by the time Sek 3 started, several of C’s friends had already lined up their apprenticeships, so the pressure was on. At the beginning of this school year, his (fabulous) teacher requested that by the Herbstferien, all her class students should have made 30 apprenticeship applications. Yes, 30 applications in 7 weeks. As I said before, Sek B students have limited options at the end of their obligatory schooling, and Sek B also carries a certain stigma, so this felt like a tough call, but she was adamant that it was a numbers game. C sat the Multicheck tests (I later realised that he could have done this in July but I didn’t know at the time) and started the laborious process of sending off applications. They also did this in school in German lessons, where they learned to write application letters and their CVs (a sensible – and obvious – use of lesson time). He had done his obligatory 30 applications by Herbstferien, but still had pledged to continue throughout the holiday. Dragging him out of bed to do this and check his email when he was clearly struggling with the rejection emails coming through was particularly heart-wrenching.

And then he had a breakthrough. He was called for an interview and a series of Schnuppertage at a precision mechanical manufacturing firm in the next town. A friend’s father helped him to prepare by practising interview skills with him in Schweizerdüütsch (he kindly offered this for all his son’s friends) – and C was called to do a week’s trial, the last day of which was taken up with exams. He passed, and was offered the apprenticeship as a Polymechaniker, which he was thrilled to accept. At the time of writing, he has just started Lehrjahr 3, of 4.

There are two other things of note from C’s third year of Sek B.

Firstly, all third year Sek students have to do a project, for which they have an exhibition at the end of the year, and for which they have to write a report. C really struggled with the report side of this, because he didn’t really know how to structure reportative or descriptive writing, and this is something I have found very frustrating in all years they have been in Swiss school.

Secondly - despite all the stigma of being in Sek B, his classmates ALL found apprenticeships, a higher percentage than some of the Sek A classes. This was unheard of in Sek B in our Gemeinde, where I was reliably informed by a teacher friend that most Sek B students “don’t get a Lehr afterwards” (one of the reasons I was initially devastated by his allocation into this stream). So, the approach of his German/Albanian teacher was clearly correct – it IS a numbers game. But it is a numbers game that you have to be on top of and chasing at the beginning of Sek 3, if not before that.

The Vocational Route

Which brings me onto the obvious question for anybody reading this from a UK background. How do we feel about the "vocational" (or “Blue Collar”) route ? Well clearly there is a lot of debate.

I saw this article a while ago, and it struck a chord for various reasons. In my view there is no point trying to be an academic snob if you are a foreigner in Switzerland, because, if your kids do not either make Gymi or fail to get through the Probezeit (or fail at some later stage), yes, your kids will suffer and so will your own personal pride. This might make uncomfortable reading, but if your long term family plan is to stay in Switzerland (rather than move elsewhere) maybe, as we did, you have to ask yourself some hard and fast questions. It is frustrating that the Swiss public schooling system does not appear to enable your children to transfer easily outside of Switzerland, but whose academic ambitions are they, yours or your children’s? In Switzerland in the public system, children are encouraged to take possession of their own ambition from an early age, so that if THEY want to try for Gymi, they are more likely to succeed. Of course we know from our own experience that one of the drawbacks of this is that the system can be very unforgiving, and does not allow well for late developers.

Perhaps, more to the point, you cannot compare the Swiss Gymi/vocational route with the Anglo system anywhere, a point made well in the article above. A “vocational” route here is the completely normal thing to do – and, while it has its frustrations (a big bugbear of mine is the questionable quality of my sons’ command of German writing skills) this is what they have at the end of it: 4 years work experience, together with a qualification and skill that could employ them, regardless of their future plans.

In my view, we need to stop thinking that university is the only way, because it’s not the right choice for lots of people. The difference in Switzerland, and I am realising this now as our elder son has reached adulthood, is that the education system is designed with employment at the end of it in mind, not as something loftier, or unrelated to the economy, as it seems to be in the UK (and right now, as Brexit approaches, the UK really needs to be looking at how it sustains its economy). Yes, there’s no guarantee of a job at the end of it in Switzerland but the point is to learn a skill and have training, to create a highly skilled workforce. Lots of people change direction after their apprenticeship, but that just builds up a bank of skills, and lots of people don’t go to uni until they are into their 20s and have done different things.

Of course I know from experience that Swiss system is as flawed as any other, but I see in the UK a huge snobbery around "vocational" training, where there shouldn’t be. What I also see in the UK is a whole generation of young people stacked up with debt from university and unable to get on the housing ladder or find a decent job. How is working in a coffee shop intellectually or spiritually rewarding if you have an academic masters? Do we not want the younger generations to be able to find work, so that they can live decently, independently?

I’ll get off my hobby horse now.

If you got this far without losing the will to live, thank you for reading. It’s Friday and the sun is nearly over the yardarm (well it would be had it made an appearance today). 

Cheerio for another year or so.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

July 2012. 2011-2012: the latchkey kids.

17th July 2012

I made a psychological commitment to keep going with this blog, but only once a year, so I plan to stick to that. In fact for the last 2 years I have sat down one July evening, stared at the screen and wondered what on earth happened during the year, then I remember some notes I scribbled along the way and it all comes flooding back.

So. Get yourself something sip…..

………now, are you sitting comfortably ? Then I’ll begin.

We have now completed 4 years in Swiss school, and 5 years in Switzerland. We are the proud possessors of C permits, and marginally more Deutsch than last year. OH’s hair is no less than last year, and I am still no thinner. The boys are marked at school as if they were Swiss; after J was signed off “DAZ” (Deutsch als Zweitesprach – German as Second Language) half way through Klasse 6, 18 months ago, it took a further year for C to be signed off. I’m still not sure whether that’s because he had come to the end of his official funding as a DAZ student or whether he was genuinely signed off, but his marks have steadily improved, and are now the same as J’s for German.

I am now a qualified teacher, having come to terms with my mid life crisis and completed a British PGCE online-distance-learning course during the year, with a teaching placement at one of the local international, English speaking schools. This has meant that for 2-3 and sometimes 4 days a week, the boys have been on their own at lunchtime, with a prepared (un)packed lunch, and the responsibility of locking the house and getting themselves back to school afterwards. They have coped with this admirably, with no apparent fires, fighting nor locking each other in, nor out. I have occasionally found plates in front of the TV – a strictly verboten place to eat in our house - after an unsupervised lunch, but that’s the depth of their sin on that front, so I’m not losing any sleep over that.

Let’s recap. For the year just ended, J has been in Oberstufe 1 – Sek A, year 1 – equivalent to Year 8 (UK) or Grade 7 (US / International). C has been in Grade 5 (Year 6 – UK or Grade 5 – US / International) equivalent, but in the Swiss system, he has one more year of Primarstufe to go before transferring to Oberstufe (that’s big, scary, secondary school in my language).

J’s year has seen an introduction to the life of school children who leave the house at 7am for a 7.25am start 4 days a week (from next year it will be 5 days a week). Naturally, he finds this very tiring; after about 6 months he was clearly exhausted, and I was fed up with him being vile to me first thing in the morning, as if the early starts were all my fault. We managed to sort that one out and he’s recovered his good humour a bit now. He is back to only Wednesday afternoons off, and twice a week school finishes at 4.05pm rather than 3.15pm.

The year began with an “Introduction to Sek” evening for all the parents in the year group (A, B & C), which, frankly, made me want to rip out my own fingernails. Everything about it was dreadful, and so unlike our experience of Primarstufe that I felt really despondent. The school director gave a “speech” which revealed him to be a totally charisma free zone; the school “Sozialarbeit” woman gave a presentation so appalling it was embarrassing - everyone was staring at the ceiling or round the room: apart from addressing the parents as if they were all half wits, she then gave a long presentation about “working together to help the youth” using the overhead projector with the projection not even on the wall, with not a single slide in focus, nor displayed on the screen straight. None of her colleagues helped. Both of these speeches were given in Swiss German. The teachers were all introduced, and then sat down – they didn’t say anything in the group meeting. Neither did they smile. We then went to the school rooms to meet our childrens’ teachers.

In a similar way to Primarstufe, J will have two main teachers for 3 years (or 2 if he leaves before that) – one, his class teacher, teaching maths, sciences and sport, to his and the “parallel class”. The teacher of the “parallel class” teaches both classes languages (German and French), humanities, and religion and culture. There are specialist teachers for English, cookery, Handarbeit and art. The main class teacher is quite young. The parallel class teacher is in his late 50s, and is “old school” – to say the least. I have no problem with strictness, and I have no problem with zero tolerance of no work effort, both of which are driven home in spades with this teacher. However, at the “Introduction to Sek” evening, we had an hour’s lecture about his teaching style, how important it was, his approach to teaching - basically an hour of him lecturing us about himself - and this on top of warnings that we had already had about his political views, which appear to be somewhat to the right of Christophe Blocher – hardly reconciliatory in a Gemeinde with a massive Balkan/Turkish, Muslim population. Not that I’m suggesting that being reconciliatory is necessary – unlike the British, the Swiss don’t have an imperial guilt complex and are very straight down the line: there is no room for political correctness for the sake of it here, and in many ways I appreciate that. But, rather than just giving all the school speeches in Hochdeutsch - “the language of education”, those who “preferred Hochdeutsch" were asked to show themselves, which felt like a thinly veiled attempt to identify the Auslandern, immediately making me feel singled out, threatened and vulnerable. Yes, I am an Auslander. Yes, my Swiss German is poor, but I do understand a good deal of Hochdeutsch. I do make an effort. Don’t pick on me please. Nor my son.

I should clarify. I had had to go straight from my teaching placement to the meeting, and I hadn’t had time to eat. I was tired, and very grumpy. It was now 9.30pm. The evening ended with the most gigantic thunderstorm of the month – we get a lot of these in Switzerland in summer - and I am utterly terrified of thunderstorms, for reasons too complicated to go into here. OH and I cycled home in the storm. I was scared, drenched, tired, very grumpy, very hungry and VERY cross. It all appeared to be going horribly wrong.

School began, and we had all the usual “new teacher, new place, new routine” stuff to get through, which we did. J couldn’t work out how to access his locker, and was too shy (yes, really) to ask his teacher for help. After a few arguments along the lines of “you’re in Sek now. Do you really want me to come to school to help ? Won’t that make things bad for you in the playground, to “need” to have your mum there ?” he finally asked his teacher for help. The answer was, “it’s your problem, go and ask the Hauswart”. Great. More arguments. In the end J did it, and evicted all the previous student’s rubbish – which should have already been disposed of. Job done, and his confidence increased.

Just as in Gymi, they had Probezeit – ie the probationary time in their stream. Most of the class passed, and there were one or two in the year who moved stream.

J started cookery – which I think he only does for a year, as I think he has chosen woodwork (or whatever it’s called these days, in German) next year. He really enjoyed this, and has started to cook a bit independently at home.

On the marks front, he dipped to start with, with his French taking a serious bashing at one point, with several unbelievably poor marks. More arguments. He’s pulled his socks up now, I’m glad to say. Because it really was just that – they do a lot of rote learning, and if you don’t do the learning, you get poor marks. Simple. But many people will testify that there is no other way to learn language vocabulary, and my own personal philosophy is that if that’s the system, there’s no point fighting it.

And he’s now more or less back to where he was, marks wise. Which is amazing really. Because I think his homework takes him the same amount of time that it did in Klasse 6,  his day is longer and more strenuous, and because he is now in the top level of the Zurich Boys Choir, rehearsing in central Zurich 3 times a week, meaning an hour’s journey there and an hour’s journey back, and an hour’s rehearsal. So overall he has increased his school hours and his workload and is out of the house for an additional 9-10 hours per week. I don’t take him to rehearsal. He takes himself, navigating through the HB at rush hour.

Late in May, they had the “Maifest” – which appeared to be a whole school party (prom ?) held at school, and lasting from 6.30pm to 11.15pm. They had a theme, which was “elegant” and to which they had to dress up – so we managed to find J something which looked like a suit. I also managed to persuade him that he really would look like 007 if he agreed to a haircut (having refused one since August 2011). He acquiesced - and looked very smart for the evening. Attendance at the Maifest from 7.00pm to 9.30pm was obligatory, and the whole thing ended with fireworks – at 11.00pm. So obviously no-one wanted to leave before that. I got him home at 11.30pm. It was a Thursday night. Were they allowed a lie in the next morning ? No, normal start, 07.25am.

In early June the whole school year went away on sports camp, to a place on Walensee – not too far away. This was another league of scariness. Some students weren’t allowed to go, due to behavioural issues in the weeks running up to the camp. Two girls were sent home after self harm (cutting). One student was sent home for smoking and /or drinking. J came home in one piece. Phew.

What else ? His main teacher went off to do further training at the beginning of Mai, so he had a trainee teacher for the last few weeks of school.

With regard to the parallel class teacher. After the dreadful “Introduction to Sek” evening I spent the whole year thinking “good grief, what is going on” but I couldn’t help but think that J was actively engaging in interesting discussion, and is genuinely very excited about the world around him. The teacher pushes him, and clearly fires his enthusiasm for life, history and culture. I don’t agree with some of the stuff he comes out with, but a teacher who inspires the kids is worth his weight in gold. At the end of the year, OH and I decided to make an appointment to see this teacher to discuss J’s progress, and so we can start to consider the options after Sek. So we saw him, and I was actually very impressed in a one-to-one environment. The whole thing was conducted in Hochdeutsch (we know he speaks English, but we didn’t ask for him to) and he spoke a good deal of sense, both as a parent himself and as a teacher. I might not agree with his political views, but he didn’t try to ram them down my throat, and both OH and I felt that he offered us a very fair and sensible picture of the future options.

The question now remains – does J want to go for Kurzgymi to gain a Matura to enable university entrance at 18, or would he be better off going for a Berufsmatura (apprenticeship) which would enable him to train to work and earn a living, and then decide what he wants to do, meaning potential university entrance later ? The teacher was clear - as we feel ourselves - that the only person who can successfully deal with Gymi is a student who wants to be there themselves - rather than as a result of parental pressure. It’s a very flexible system, and with each passing year, we become less blinkered.

C has had a more straightforward, consolidation year. After the initial trauma of Klasse 4, he temporarily fell off the homework wagon at the beginning of Klasse 5, when I started my work placement, but we quickly got him back on it, and he has coped, mostly very well. He fell off it again in April, but, again, we clambered back on. He’s not been away on camp, but will go the second week of term in August, in Klasse 6. He has started French – and – despite my misgivings last year - has done very well. In fact, it’s his second highest mark, and is higher than his German mark. I shouldn’t underestimate him.

He has continued with the Antolin reading scheme, this year coming 3rd in his Klasse (another 10 CHF gift voucher from Ex Libris), and it has clearly massively helped his Leseverständnis (read understanding) – it’s a good thing for him, as he does just love to read, and likes to take himself off to the Gemeinde library to get out a pile of books. He usually tempers this with a similarly big pile of Asterix books, but I don’t care. Any reading is better than no reading, as far as I’m concerned. And Asterix is very funny.

His – very sporty – teacher has been out of action, sportwise, for several months, and, after 3 months of the class being taught by student teachers under his watchful eye, he then had to disappear for another 3 weeks for a knee operation, meaning that the class had a substitute teacher at the point where they should have been going out on their bikes each week preparing for the bike test (Veloprüfung). Here I would like to indulge my love of  the common sense approach to life skills teaching that I appreciate so much about the Swiss education system, and explain further about the Veloprüfung, since I knew very little when J undertook it in Klasse 5.

Like swimming, learning to cycle, in our Gemeinde (very probably Kanton ZH) is compulsory. They have to do it. The Veloprüfung consists of three parts: a practical test, where they have to check over the bike with the police and prove that they understand how it works, and the parts that they maintain; a theory test – for which they have to learn the cycling parts of the Swiss Highway Code and then sit a written test; and a practical test – for which they have to do a bike parcours, and a marshaled independent cycle round the Gemeinde, being marked on things like – indicating and moving out into the middle of the road accurately, cycling round a roundabout, crossing a pedestrian crossing accurately, following road signs etc. I make no apology for thinking this is brilliant, and I mentally dismiss anyone who doesn’t think this is a useful skill (and, believe it or not, I’ve met a few).

I offered to help with the preparation for this – with some trepidation, I must admit. On the first morning, I discovered that my “task” was to cycle the students, in pairs, to the cycle shop, where the staff there checked everything over on each student’s bike, and gave a list of what needed fixing, for the student to get repaired before the police official check. So that was a morning of cycling back and forth between school and the cycle shop – and a pleasant morning it was too. What impressed me was that one of the mothers on the parents’ association had enlisted the help of fellow members of the Gemeinde cycle club to help teach the students the parcours, which was an area within the school playground that had been specially marked out as such. The parcours was hard – a lot of very exact balance to be achieved. The members of the velo club (mostly retired men) were clear and in agreement with the teacher: there is no option. The students must learn to cycle. But they were kind, and very helpful to the students. A real community effort.

On the day of the Veloprüfung itself, I marshaled at one roundabout, with another local mother (who, praise be, spoke fluent English – although I would like to point out, with some pride, that 95% of the conversation was auf Deutsch). We had to make sure that the students could use the pedestrian /cycling crossings accurately, and, though we had to speak to a couple of students (“there is a cycle crossing – why are you using the roundabout instead ???!”) we failed no-one, I’m glad to say. Over the whole three parts of the test, they are allowed to “fail” six things – and if they fail more than six things, they re-do the Prüfung in Klasse 6. Until they have passed it, they are not allowed on the road, and must only use the cycle paths.

I also helped during the year with the lunch club – not the Gemeinde-provided child care, but a club run by the parents to allow the kids to stay at school, have a packed lunch and then supervised play or reading in the library. This is an Elternverein (“Parents’ Club”) initiative, which I’ve been happy to help with, though there have been times when my lack of Swiss German has been a major problem – usually discipline issues. I think I was on the rota about 6 times in the year in total – hardly a vast amount of time to give up. Students had to bring a packed lunch, and it cost 2 CHF per week – unless the student’s parent(s) helped on the rota, in which case it was free. Money raised went to the school, and my understanding is that it’s been spent on playground equipment. The club was very well organized, but the kids didn’t half try it on – knowing that we were parent helpers rather than teaching staff. However that’s another story.

What else ? Their final Mensch und Umwelt (humanities) unit for the year was learning how to use the ZVV – the public transport system – so as to teach them how to get around independently. The Klasse were split into groups of 3 or 4, and had to learn how to use the ZVV – the Kanton Zurich public transport system, learning to understand the signs, and how to plan an excursion using the timetable. The culmination of this was their own day out, when they had planned their own (seemingly unfeasibly complicated) trip. C’s group planned a trip which had me exhausted just thinking about it. They had to leave in a certain time window, and return in a certain time window. They went north, back to the ZH, west, back to the ZH, down to Horgen and the Tierpark, across the lake by boat, further east and then back to our Gemeinde, with a valid ticket, a mobile phone, a packed lunch, 2 chums and no accompanying adult. Needless to say, I was mighty relieved when they arrived back – but they had a grand day out, and only one or two minor hiccups.

And so, we wait to see what next year brings. Given how much has been going on this year, and how much I’ve not been there for them, they are doing very well, and I’m a very proud mother. I’m conscious that that’s a blessing, a grace and a privilege. See you next year. Insha'Allah.

Friday 15 July 2011

Reflection II

Well, we’ve made it through another year.

Today, J leaves primary school for the big bad scary world of Sekundarschule (“Sek”). Quite why I’m feeling so strange about this is a mystery to me – had we remained in the UK, he would have left primary school last year. I really feel that he has coped so incredibly well with everything that has been thrown at him over the last three years, I’m confident that he will cope with this next change without difficulty. He is used to being independent and taking responsibility for himself and his work. I’m incredibly proud of him and his attitude to life and new things, and he is, of course, very excited (and not just about getting a new rucksack, since the old one really is on its last legs). J is only 12 but this is the 4th school he has left, due to us moving around with OH’s job. This time he leaves with his peer group, for the first time, having achieved 3 years together in the same class. Having only ever been to 2 schools myself as a child, and those for 7 years each, I can appreciate that this is a huge thing for him.

The advantages of Sek are that the school is local – just another couple of minutes’ cycle further away than his primary school, and he can cycle all the way there on paths off the road, through the new park that lies close to us in the Dorf. He will also do a broader base of subjects, including things like woodwork and cookery. Had he passed the Gymi exam he would have had to be on the bus at 06.30am every day for the 07.25am start in the city – which would have killed me if it hadn’t killed him. And he would have been doing 5 hours of Latin per week – fine if that’s what floats your boat. In Sek A it is still a 07.25am start every day – but down the road, not at the end of a commute, and he has another 2 opportunities to try for the Gymi, when his German language skills will hopefully be stronger. For C next year the only change is the introduction of French as a third (fourth if you count Schweizerduutsch) language. His language skills are not his strong point, so he will need a lot of help with this. The rest of his timetable remains identical for the next year, which is great.

How have we progressed since 2008 ? Well, we’re older, the boys are taller, I’m no thinner, and OH has slightly less hair. We have friends in the village. Correction. We have Swiss friends in the village with whom we socialize, (say it very quietly) sometimes even in German. The boys are still happy, and they each have plenty of friends. They can speak more languages than us, and with ever increasing confidence.

The schooling system is not perfect, but then, show me one that is. The advantages of integration, in my view, for a family planning to stay here, far outweigh the disadvantages and that’s with no regard whatever for the financial aspect of such a decision. I know we have had a mostly positive experience, but that is partly due to our own attitude to our surroundings and the culture in which we find ourselves – we don’t continually harp on about it not being the same as it is in Britain – because we're not in Britain. Doh !

For reasons too numerous and complex to detail not relating to school, it’s been a difficult 12 months, and I’m not sorry to see the back of it. But I’m old enough and ugly enough to understand that life has both ups and downs.

Next year sees a new departure for me, as I undertake a full time online degree course, with a placement some 20km away, meaning that I will not be in the house every day to give them a hot meal at lunchtime, 1950’s housewife style. They are old enough to cope now, so I plan to leave them a cold “packed” lunch on the days I am not there at lunchtime, and on the days I am there, they will cook a light meal for themselves with minimal supervision. To this end, I have just finished writing a basic step-by-step cookery book for them to use, comprising their favourite lunch and tea time food, cooked just like Mama does. But not cooked by Mama. I am reclaiming my equal rights, which I left at the border some 4 years ago. They are already trialling the cookbook enthusiastically, and never has my kitchen floor worn so much hot bacon fat.

And there end the chapters for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. Nightcap, anyone ?


Where to start with our school annus horribilis ?

Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.

In this year, J was in Klasse 6 (aged 12) which is the final year of primary school, and C was in Klasse 4 (aged 10), the beginning of the "Mittelstufe".

J again had a new teacher – who was young, newly qualified, and, according to J, “covered in tattoos and body piercings. And she’s been to Blackpool”. Not wishing to come at this with any prejudice whatever, I was intrigued to meet her, and OH even more so. How did a group of 11 year olds know about her tattoos ? She does indeed have a couple of – very pretty – tattoos (if you like that sort of thing – personally I run screaming from any room containing needles designed to pierce the skin) on her arms and ankles, and a bit of body jewelry on her upper torso. She would have to be Frankenstein to have a proper body piercing where the jewelry is placed. She also speaks fluent English, having spent time in Cambridge and Liverpool, presumably on language placements. On the whole she has been a very good, challenging teacher for the class, though I have a couple of issues with the method of communication with the parents – mostly via the kids, and with unpredictable and maddening requests. “Mum, I need to take in 10 franks for the party. Today. And it’s got to be a 10 frank note. And tomorrow can you help at the Badi ?” Me: “Tell her she’ll have what she’s given and I’ll let her know my availability when I’ve had split second to check my diary” etc (can you tell I spent 15 years living in the environs of Manchester ?)

And so, in Klasse 6, if your child is potential material for the Gymnasium (grammar school equivalent), your life is busy, with seemingly endless meetings at school and potential grammar schools. Since he is our eldest, and we didn’t think he would be ready for all that, we hadn’t cleared our diaries for the whole of November to January (no joke) and were utterly unprepared for what would hit us.

You may have gathered by now that the Swiss schooling system is quirky, to say the least. The system varies from Kanton to Kanton, to such an extent that even the cut off dates for when the year groups fall varies from Kanton to Kanton: if you move Kanton, your child might end up repeating a school year simply because of when his or her birthday falls. In Kanton Zurich the state education is world class. And the Swiss culture among middle class parents is to seriously push the children to achieve Gymnasium (“Gymi”) entrance. Gymnasium is the grammar school, the elite academic stream that prepares the students for higher, academic study. J had friends who were allegedly preparing for Gymi entrance from Klasse 4 – which both OH and I thought was ridiculous. Entrance to the Gymi can be after Klasse 6 (“Langzeitgymnasium” = “long time gymnasium”) or after Klasse 8 or 9 (“Kurzzeitgymnasium” = “short time gymnasium”). So it’s very flexible, and allows for late developers, which is good. And entrance to university ultimately can be achieved by a variety of means. Most of the main Gymi schools are in Zurich city, with local ones in some areas. In Kanton ZH, entrance to Langgymi is by exam, and is in 2 subjects alone: maths and German, comprising one maths paper and two German papers, one on grammar and one “creative writing”. Once you get to Kurzgymi entrance, French is added as an extra paper. As far as I understand it, students are only put forward for the exam with the approval of their teachers, and they have to have already achieved a particular average mark, with a mature work ethic. Students choose which school they want to go to, and sit the exam at that school, in early May. Above a particular mark, they pass the exam and gain a place. Below a particular mark is a straight fail. The grey area inbetween these two marks requires a further, oral exam to determine the student’s level of German. Students who pass then have a trial period of up to a semester, where they are continuously tested to see if they can take the pace. The intake is 125%. At the end of the trial period and sometimes earlier, 25% are unceremoniously kicked out, sent back to the local Sekundarschule. Survival of the fittest ? Darwin’s theory has nothing on this.

Just to confuse the whole country, this system for the Gymi is of course different to, for instance, Basel, where Gymnasium entrance is based on school marks and work ethic alone.

So, that’s the background. Now let’s rewind to November, when we had our first student / teacher conference with J’s new tattooed and pierced teacher.

The teacher was very pleased with him, couldn’t believe he’d only been in Swiss school for 2 years, and encouraged him to sit the exam. We were pleased, but a little daunted. J took it as carte blanche that he was so clever that he no longer needed to do any work because he was a Gymi candidate. And his regular school marks started to spiral down. It’s a wonder I didn’t throttle him. So, for the next X weeks (I’ve lost track) the battles were frequent and immense. And long lived. And all the rest of it. In the meantime, we had a group parents evening at school where the local Sekundarschule teachers introduced themselves and talked about the school. At the end of the evening, one of the Klasse 6 teachers (there are 2 or maybe 3 Klasse 6 groups in the school) announced what preparation the school would offer for the Gymi candidates – one lunchtime per week, bring a packed lunch and work through past papers. No preparation is done in the regular classroom, since so few students sit and pass the exam. All well and good. We had already decided that we would make him sit the exam with minimal preparation, since we felt that he had coped well enough, and to put him under additional pressure in only his 3rd year of local school would be completely unfair. Sek was and is still a perfectly acceptable option, particularly given that we don’t speak German at home. So, the one lunchtime at school was all the preparation he did.

In January, we had 3 or 4 evening visits to the city and local Gymis, to have a look at them, and I also attended a very helpful evening seminar hosted by my friend Tracey Keenan in her Ready Steady Relocate disguise, which was an information evening about the Swiss schooling system in Kanton Zurich, but with all the information in English, and much of it presented by staff from the Kanton Zurich Education Department- a God send. I only wished I had had the chance to attend this 4 months previously, but this was the first time Tracey had run this particular seminar on the secondary system. If you are in need of information, I can't recommend these seminars highly enough, I believe that they are now a regular occurrence.

Then there were the “Schnupfertages” – the “taster days” when prospective students got to visit and have a taste of a day at the Gymi. Fortunately for us, J’s best friend wanted to go, and the friend’s Dad offered to take them both. He just did the one “Schnupfertag” before deciding that that was the school he wanted to apply to. So then we applied, which involved an online application, the electronic key for which cost a 20 CHF payment. We were signed up. And J was still taking the view that he was too clever to have to do any work. Aware that he would be up against the children of Tiger Mothers who had been preparing their child for this moment since conception, we signed him up for a private crammer course for the second week of the Fruhlingsferien, just before the exam.

And then, with the decision to go for it made, life returned to an uneasy normality. He did the lunchtime preparation and gradually improved his marks, and the arguments continued ad nauseam.

The day of the exam came, he sat the exam, and came out very confident. He hadn’t twigged that in only completing 9 out of 13 maths problems, his maths mark would automatically be below the required mark for the average, and his German paper would, by definition, very probably be below average. So, OH and I steeled ourselves and him for a disappointment, which duly came. That said, given the deliberate lack of preparation, his marks showed that he had acquitted himself very well, and I have high hopes for next time. He took the disappointment well himself, with great pragmatism, and will go into Sekundarschule stream A in August, which is the standard academic stream, as opposed to the elite academic stream. Naturally, I was disappointed for him because it would have been a huge boost to his confidence to achieve Langgymi entrance. However, he’s only 12, he had never before sat an exam, and he has more chances in the future. His best friend also didn’t pass, meaning that they will go to Sek together.

What else happened this year for J ? Hormones kicking off in the classroom. Not for him yet, but for everyone else. And his class wrote and performed their own “musical” all about growing up and going to Sek, which was a fantastic production. My own musical life was kicked back into action by wonderful friends encouraging me to join a choir that put on Britten’s War Requiem in Holy Week, for which the Zurich Boys Choir provided the childrens’ voices. OH and the boys attended the concert, which was tremendously moving. Out of the blue, several weeks later, and with absolutely no nagging from me whatsoever, J suddenly announced that he wanted to join the Zurich Boys' Choir. So at the time of writing he has attended 2 rehearsals, made some new friends with the same interest as him, and fired his enthusiasm for singing. What with him and me and the piano and the electric guitar, the house can be pretty damned noisy.

By contrast, C had a crash landing into Klasse 4, and is now, at the end of the year, coping.

It all started with him telling me that he was coping fine with the homework, when I asked, and me stupidly believing him, because we had agreed that he would start to work unsupervised rather than under my nose. I had given him no skills to cope with the increased volume of homework, thinking that 2 years of Swiss school under his belt would be sufficient preparation. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It didn’t help that his new, wonderful (and I do mean that) teacher didn’t teach them how to deal with all the million bits of paper. So, after a few weeks of school I firstly had a phone call from his extra German teacher letting me know that she wasn’t happy with him, and then an email from the main class teacher, saying that C had not handed in 20 pieces of homework and when could we meet to sort out the situation ? 20 pieces of homework !! I nearly had a fit on the spot. So – more angry words, C resorting to untruths to defend himself and me coming down on him like a tonne of bricks. He had told me everything was under control. It couldn’t have been more out of control, and I had to deal with a whole gamut of emotions myself – am I really such a tyrant mother that he couldn’t come to me asking for help ? His desk looked like a tornado had hit it, he had lost one – or was it two – homework diaries, and there were worksheets everywhere on his desk. Absolutely everywhere. And down the back of the desk. And the bed. And scrunched up in his bag. And he had no idea what to do with them. This came to a head the weekend that his Godparents came to visit. I was so angry with him I could hardly deal with the situation, and luckily his fantastic Godfather took over, sitting with him and making him work through the backlog of homework until it was done.

I bought him a concertina file, and we labelled the sections so that he knew where to put his papers. And then, revisiting flylady, we created him a new control journal, and a very strict routine, that involved him having to empty his bag in front of me, and show to me and tick off every single piece of homework. I never had to do that with J, he just got on with it. J’s first teacher had given her students each a concertina file and shown them all how to use it, so I had (wrongly) assumed that C’s teacher would do the same. We had a meeting with C’s teacher. In fact, I invited his teacher round to the house, so he could see we weren’t a dysfunctional family. We were told that “the brother” had been blamed for everything, and that the teacher had wondered if we were in the process of divorcing. We were gobsmacked.

And so, the prison officer mother came to stay (that’s me). He had to do his homework supervised at the dining table. He had to check everything with me. He had to show his homework diary to the teacher to make sure he had written everything down. And, 8 months later, he is now showing progress, although it is definitely 2 steps forward, 1.5 steps back. He also had to work his way through 28 reading books of increasing complexity, solving puzzles, over a period of 6 months, which is his teacher’s way of rapidly improving German reading skills. And his teacher is crazy about reading, so the Antolin reading scheme is very much in force. As I write, he has today come home having achieved 1000+ points on the Antolin reading scheme, and earned himself a 10 CHF frank Ex Libris voucher. I never thought that possible 8 months ago, and we were seriously wondering if he would have to repeat the year. He won’t.

One final issue. I have mentioned that his previous teacher was a little unchallenging. Well, his handwriting mark in his Klasse 4 January report was very poor, so I went off to the Kanton Zurich educational supplier and purchased the 2 handwriting exercise books for him to work through at home, though feeling a bit fed up that I was having to do this when he had been in Swiss school from Klasse 2 and therefore should have already learnt it. It transpired that he had missed all the handwriting lessons in Klasse 2 and 3 because of his extra German lessons, but no-one had told us. If we had known, we would have worked through the 2 exercise books at home very happily. But we weren’t told (or asked) – so he ended up with a rubbish mark for handwriting in January of Klasse 4, and a whole load of extra work to do. I wasn’t impressed.

What else has happened ? His teacher is also crazy about sport and keeping fit, so they play unihockey once a week over the lunchtime, and there was a unihockey tournament on one Saturday during May, which was a great social event for the class and their families.

They also went on camp as a class, which was a surprise to me because J didn’t go on camp until Klasse 5. But off they went and had a wonderful week in Toggenburg.

He’s getting there, and he’s showing signs of actually wanting to do it himself. If I were a dentist I could compare it with pulling teeth. The problem is that we never had any of these issues with J, so I had no anticipation of them with C. Does parenting ever get easier ?

Thursday 14 July 2011


For this year, J and C were in Klasse 5 (age 11) and 3 (age 9) respectively. For both of them it was really a year of consolidation, I suppose, though J ended up having a rather disrupted year in terms of teachers and other issues. Fortunately for us he doesn’t let these things faze him.

You might remember that I blogged that J’s whole class had attended his teacher’s wedding party – well, the inevitable happened and she fell pregnant almost immediately. So gone were my high hopes of J having one teacher (well, one 80% and one 20%) teacher for the whole three years – because – at the same time, the 20% teacher also fell pregnant. Was it something in the water ? Wonderful for them both, not so great for the kids. Both teachers left permanently at the Fruhlingsferien break of Klasse 5, with a new 100% class teacher just for the summer term. Who was OK I think.

I guess the highlight of the year for him was Steinzeitlager (“Stone Age Camp”) – which I had also blogged about, in anticipation. Well, they had the most brilliant time, aided by excellent weather, and came home absolutely reeking. For 5 days they had slept in tents in the woods, washed in the river, used an eco-loo, cooked by camp fire that they had the responsibility to start, and generally had a ball. OH picked a carful of them up and drove home – with the windows all open – whereupon J was put straight in the bath, where he stayed for some time. My fears of a Lord of the Flies reenactment went unfounded.

At the end of the school year, the whole class also did the Veloprufung – the equivalent of the Cycling Proficiency Test. It comprised practicing under the supervision of the local police, how to use the roads responsibly (children are not officially allowed to cycle on roads until they have passed this test, though they can of course use foot and cycle paths, of which there are billions. Well, maybe millions. Or perhaps thousands.) and was in three parts: first part was a physical check to make sure that the bike was in working order (lights, brakes, etc); then a written highway code test; and then the actual cycling, which is watched / judged by police and volunteers.

After this, he and his friends started to go to the Badi (the open air swimming pool in our Gemeinde) on their own, showing an increasing amount of independence – and swagger, of course. They are boys.

The low point was him breaking his arm, on ice in the dark playground (early German lesson) the second day of term in January, and being out of action for the whole ski season. Coming only 6 weeks after OH was knocked off his bike by a car, cycling home from work at dusk, this was a horrible shock, and a horrible start to what turned out to be a horrible year. The school were quick – instant, in fact – to deny responsibility for the black ice on the playground. Which, at the time, was neither helpful nor comforting, since this declaration took place at 07.40am as he was being carried off the playground to A&E by OH. But that is the case – his insurance covered the cost, and legally, they weren’t responsible. Of course it was his left arm – he’s lefthanded, and both bones in his forearm were broken, needing surgery, pins and an overnight stay in the Spital. He had to have his whole arm recast a second time, because with only a half cast he was waving it round his head like a lunatic, and the doctors decided he needed more physical restraint. So, a whole arm cast it was, but he learnt how to dress himself and if you didn’t know it was broken, it wasn’t easy to spot. So it became quite comical – he couldn’t move it from the elbow, but he could swing it out at right angles to his body, like some maniacal Bond villain. When it was all over he kept the cast, the pins and the initial sling – adding them to his increasing “gruesome box” which now includes bits of his old brace, and the sling he used when he broke his collar bone playing rugby at the age of 8 – and probably a few other unmentionable things that I have repeatedly tried to forget. I just hope he doesn’t think that a gruesome box is going to impress the girls in a few years’ time (“hey, darling, come up and see my gruesome box. It’s all the supporting bits for where my body’s been fixed over the years. And I’m only 14”). His teacher was, initially, very sympathetic. He had only just got to grips with the Swiss handwriting (“Schnurrlischrift”) and there he was struggling with a broken arm. She helped him a lot, and he even managed to learn to write with the cast on. But it meant that he couldn’t manage his bag, so I had to do a school run, in a terrible winter, 4 times a day. Sometimes he was allowed to stay at school and do his work there, so he didn’t have to manage his bag, but that was entirely at the teacher’s discretion, which became more unpredictable as her pregnancy progressed. It being Swiss school, at random times of the day - I would be in the middle of something, working, sometimes even in a meeting with my boss - I would get a phone call: “Mum, teacher’s got a doctor’s appointment, we’ve all got to go home, I’m not allowed to stay in the classroom, you need to come and get me NOW”. Needless to say, this was horrendously disruptive and drove me bonkers. But we survived.

In terms of his work, his marks started reasonably high and stayed high. The second semester saw him being marked in his German for the first time (auslanders are given a certain length of time in school to integrate before being marked as if they are Swiss) – and all showed good signs.

C had a fairly uneventful year, from what I can remember. He continued with his teacher from Klasse 2, who seemed to be both uninspiring and unchallenging. I still maintain that he needed this to get to grips with the transition to the Swiss system, but OH disagrees. So we agree to differ. There is much more to tell about his transition to Klasse 4, of which more in the next post. There were a few “characters” (for want of a better way of putting it) in his class, and there seemed to be a few cases of unpleasant behavior going unchallenged, which was worrying. Then, about 6 weeks before the end of term we heard from the Gemeinde that he would be in a whole new class, in the much bigger school next door, with only one child he knew, with a male teacher, for Klasse 4 onwards. I panicked. The school next door has a reputation for having much more severe social integration problems (our Gemeinde has a high proportion of auslanders, particularly from the Balkans, who, strangely enough, don’t all get on) and I was very concerned. However, on speaking to the neighbours, it transpired that he had been placed in the class of one of the best and most popular teachers in the whole Gemeinde, so we approached the situation more happily. Since he would be in a different school to his brother, he would have to learn to stand on his own two feet. All looked positive.

His marks continued OK, and his maths kept at a reasonable pace for Klasse 3. All in all, an uneventful year. Unlike the next.