Friday, 15 July 2011


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 ?


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