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.

I have been persuaded to update......

As I write, we have now completed 3 years in Swiss school, and 4 years in Switzerland.

Two years ago I was in two minds about whether to keep up the blog, and in the end left it to stand as it was, partly because I went back to work at very short notice, and simply didn’t have the time to write, and partly because I wondered what benefit there would be to others in keeping it up when it was likely to become both repetitive and dull.

However, on speaking with Margaret Oertig-Davidson (of “Beyond Chocolate” fame, possibly the most useful book we ever read on integrating into Swiss culture) I decided that I would attempt to put down in the ether a summary of the second and third years in the system. Margaret is currently (2011) writing a book about the Swiss schooling system, and a few weeks ago I spoke with her at some length. I was persuaded to update it, and, God willing, I will attempt to update it on a yearly basis. I don’t think there’s any need for more frequent updates than that – the whole original point was to write it up as a record of our increasing integration out of the expat bubble, and to deal with initial integration issues. Anyone who has had enough stamina to read the blog from the beginning (and if you have, I commend you for a prize) will know that there were quite a few of those.

So – bad luck, reader, here I am again. Of course, whether you choose to read is entirely your choice. You’re not my child, and it’s not your homework. Be thankful it’s not auf Schweizerdeutsch ! So, before we start, does anyone fancy a G&T ?

Saturday, 11 July 2009


We made it.

The boys are speaking both Swiss and High German.

C can do maths. He hasn’t needed to go back to the educational psychiatrist once, and is back to the mischevious, affectionate and lovable little boy that he was before the move.

They have friends in the village with whom they play on a daily basis. They walk themselves to school – and I miss the school run like a hole in the head. They can independently get themselves to where they want to go, within reason.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster of a ride. OH’s job takes him away on business a good 70% of the time. When he is working in Winterthur he is often not back until 7.30pm, having left at 6.45am - so I have been mostly on my own during the week, often all week, with 3 voluntary jobs to juggle around the school times. There’ve been times when I’ve laughed in amazement and bewilderment, and times when I’ve sobbed and sobbed in frustration. I’ve marvelled at Swiss practicality and the common sense of their approach, and wondered at the beautiful handwork which they value so highly in education for so many valid reasons.

I honestly think that the children have been more needy and demanding of me this year than they ever were when they were in nappies: sometimes I feel I have been homeschooling, with the amount of support they have needed – combined with clockwatching continuously because of them coming home every day for lunch. But I have tried to look up at the big picture rather than worry about what I’m stumbling over that particular day.

I have had to be very, very tough with the children, which hasn’t always been easy. In the first term in particular, the children were visibly sinking with exhaustion from the language immersion, so I had to insist on bedtime being stuck to strictly – sometimes that meant that by the time homework was finished, there was very little time to unwind before bed. By Christmas, getting out of bed in the morning was a desperate struggle for them, and when they sat at the table at mealtimes looking as if they were too tired to bother feeding themselves, I seriously wondered if we had done the right thing. But they recovered.

I have gone out of my way to foster good relations with all the teachers so that they know we are on their side and supportive parents, but without interfering. The Swiss teachers know what they are doing – so I have refused to take issue with them about anything such as homework volume, marks for tests etc. If the teacher has said that something must be redone, then so be it, even if privately I have wanted to scream.

I am mentally drained, but also strangely exhilarated. This year has taken all my inner reserves and energy, but the children have come to the end of it with local friends, extremely happy, increasingly independent, and with language skills being developed at an amazing rate of knots. So it’s been worth it, even if there have been times when the gin bottle has taken a bit of a bashing.

It’s been what the British term good character building stuff.

The sun is out, the summer holidays are here. Pimms on the lawn, anyone ?

Final week of the year

Well, we’ve made it to the last week of the first year in Swiss school. Where has the year gone ? No, seriously, where HAVE the last 6 months gone ? Time has not so much flown by as rocketed out of orbit.

Private conversations

This week, for the first time, I overhear the boys having a conversation between themselves in Swiss German. I don’t think this is done with a view to impress me – it appears completely unselfconscious – but is this the shape of things to come ? On the one hand I’m enormously proud of them – and on the other hand panicking about what if they start using secret language to make plans and plots to overthrow the parents and lock the wine cellar ?

Holiday homework

J is set homework for the holidays – the vast tracts of vocabulary of which I wrote in the last blog entry, along with continuing his second reading book, which, again, he is plodding through 5 pages at a time.

C is also set homework – they have to borrow 4 books out of the school library and read them in the holidays. No problem. He is an avid little reader, and chooses 4 Asterix books in German. As I write, he’s already finished one of them - but then, he does have a book available in each bathroom.

They both play out after school each day, calling for their friends, sometimes confidently making phone calls in Swiss German to arrange playdates. Their German phone skills are better than mine – mainly because they have had to stand on their own two feet rather than rely on me, although I can now make a phone call to arrange a doctor’s appointment, and next year I plan to work on improving my own German significantly.

They are both extremely tired, but the homework lessens as the week progresses.

School reports

On Thursday we receive their reports, and are pleased to see that they are both doing well. Neither has been given a mark for German, although J appears to have been marked as if he were a Swiss child, but without being given an overall number 1-6. I have to sign the reports and send them back into school for safekeeping.

General observations

One observation of the school that struck me last week when I was “facebooking” with an old friend in the UK, is that the state funded school here in CH does not continuously ask for money from parents for trips, donations, equipment and so on. It’s well funded by the government. The camp that J will go on in September will cost 85 CHF per child – for 5 days of survival skills training.

Another observation is that there are no school assemblies to which parents are invited – the only time we’ve seen the children do any kind of performance has been either through the Musikschule – ie separately from main school, or the school production last week, which I wrote about in the previous blog entry. So yes, there have been fewer opportunities for me to see for myself exactly what they are doing in school, but then there have been the 2 Besuchermorgens and the various parents evenings. It’s just different, that’s all - I have plenty to occupy myself with, without needing parental involvement in school life to fill my time.

Friday is party day. C’s class were supposed to go up into the forest to the adventure park and then cook sausages for lunch, but the weather is pants all week so they have a day of sports at school followed by a packed lunch. J’s class start at 9am (a true lie-in) and then have breakfast, games and lunch together.

They’re home by 2pm.

And then they’re both out again by 2.45pm, off to play with their mates.


Monday, 6 July 2009

Week 37: shooting competition, school production, forgotten homework

Shooting competition

OH takes J to the shooting competition that he had been invited to take part in a couple of weeks previously. The results are, apparently, fairly dire but then what do you expect from a 10 year old who is the size of a 7 year old, trying to handle a full size rifle ?

Apparently it’s a one-off competition, and I’m still not sure of the reason for it. But he has great fun, and it’s conducted in a completely safe environment at the local shooting club. I don’t think there are any plans for a replay so I can breathe easy again.

School production.

All the letters about this production, named “Catwalk Barbie Mix” had baffled me (plus ca change). J had told us that his class were doing a couple of raps. C claimed not to be taking part in it at all, but was instead doing a winter show. ?

It’s certainly nothing like any school production I ever took part in. Co-ordinated by the Handarbeit teacher, it comprises approximately 12 very short sketches, involving different parts of all the classes, and with a finale involving all of them. It’s staged in the foyer of the school rather than the hall, and C is right – he is in a winter scene, which is basically one of his friends dressed as a snowman (poor thing – it’s a boiling hot evening) and all of them dressed up as if in winter and dancing round. J’s class do 2 raps. The other classes do a mixture of catwalk, parading, dance and mime to music. There is very little live music and no singing.

No matter, it’s intriguing, and clearly a lot of work has gone into it, and the children all thoroughly enjoy themselves.

J forgets his homework.

Friday morning J is very distressed to realise that he has handed in the book he was reading that he is to give a presentation on this morning, and from which he had to read aloud to the whole class a short paragraph and the back cover blurb. He is exhausted and in tears with worry – his Friday teacher is a tough cookie.

He had been set this German reading book of about 150 pages to read and then tell the class about on a specific day in the future, some 2-3 months ago. We had set about this overwhelmingly huge task in a way that would make Flylady proud: we worked out how many pages there were to read and how many days he had to complete it in, and then factored in a few less days to allow for occasional slip ups in the routine. And then he had set about reading it, 5 pages per day. At the end of each reading session, he wrote a single sentence (in German) précising what had happened in those pages. Somehow, he finished the book 2 weeks early. Woo hoo !

But without remembering that he would need the book for his presentation, he had handed it in, and it had then been taken by another class member. So I suggest that he rings the school friend and asks her to bring the book in. She does. Thank Goodness for the phone tree. But I also tell him that he needs to go and find his teacher first thing and explain what has happened so that she knows.

Test cancelled.

After all that last week, this week’s vocab test is cancelled due to the entire class being absolutely shattered after their production.

But instead they will have summer holiday homework of learning vast tracts of vocabulary. Deep breath………. And exhale…………

Vocabulary aaargggggggghhhhhh

I’m laughing a great deal less, however, on the Friday, when J is sent home with a German test to repeat despite him having achieved a 4 (out of 6). I’m pleased with the result, but if the teacher isn’t and he has to repeat it, then he has to repeat it. Punkt. In fact, I’m furious, not with school, but with him, as we have had a specific argument about vocabulary learning approximately every 6 weeks this year, which has done nothing for my blood pressure and caused a great deal of ill feeling on both parts.

I had asked him every single day of the week whether he had any vocabulary to learn for a test (as we have devised an effective but traditional method for learning it in our household, crafted out of a great deal of struggle and frustration as the year has progressed) – and the answer had been no. So when he comes home having had a vocab test that he had avoided telling me about, there is an almighty explosion from me, as I feel he has, once again, tried to learn it his way, ie the ineffective way, and in so doing has again doubled his work load by having to repeat it. And he has been dishonest with me, in saying that he didn’t have any vocab to learn when he did.

So, blunt (and loud, and angry) words are spoken on the topics of honesty, ineffective learning methods, wasting my time and his etc. He finally admits that he was trying to get away with it.

I stomp out of the house for a girls night out feeling thoroughly fed up and absolutely not in the mood for partying. I’ve had enough of this wretched struggle.

Week 36 - Parents Evening.

OH and I attend a compulsory parents’ evening at school for J’s class, which will be class 5 next year.

There are two topics:

French which they will start next year, taking their language quota, at the age of 11, to 4: Swiss German (spoken only), High German, English and French; and

Class camp ("lager"), which will be Stein Zeit Lager, ie Stone Age camp. More to follow.

The French bit is all very straightforward and basically is just an explanation of how they introduce the language, and the books and other resources they will use. I reassure myself that even though my own French is now worse than my German (hard to imagine, but pathetically true), I should at least be able to help J with this subject. I can still read and understand French, even if the limited powers of French speech that I once possessed left me when I started learning German.

The bit about Stein Zeit Lager is far, far funnier though. Class camp is a regular part of Swiss school life. It happens once a year after they reach a certain age, which varies according to the region, and my understanding was that they went away to a hostel (owned by the Gemeinde) and did outdoor activities.

However, J’s class really are going on camp, in the forest, in tents, with no running water and a bucket as a WC, in September. If they can’t light a fire, they won’t eat. The shower is a bucket, though a different one to the WC I hope. They’re not allowed to hunt (phew) so I imagine they will be taking the food with them, but it is basically an introduction to survival skills. Brilliant - in exactly the same vein as the way that, on the children’s second day at Kindergarten, they get a policeman showing them how to cross the road safely. Never mind all that reading and writing and Key Stage this and that fuss: at the age of 6, they are expected to walk to Kindergarten independently and be in one piece when they get there – so the first thing they are taught is how to cross the road. I digress.

There is a list of equipment that each child will need, which includes things like waterproof walking boots, penknife, warm sleeping bag, ONE (yes, just one) set of underclothes for the entire week (eugh) including long johns, etc etc. The risk of tick infection is high in the forest during the warmer months, so they wear one set of underclothes all week to reduce skin exposure. The temperature might reach -5 at night. The grand cost of this, to each family, is 85 CHF – around £45.00 – which is the cost of sending the teacher. The camp itself is funded by the school.

There is a very funny point when the teacher giving the presentation asks for questions, and gets one extremely irate Swiss mother ranting at her about the camp being dangerous, this is the first we have heard of it, the ticks are rife in the forest etc etc. It's less of a question than a 5 minute shout, during which time OH and I sit trying to stifle our laughter. I indulge in a bit of people watching and observe all the other parents in the room gradually starting to either stare out of the window or at the floor or cringe visibly. The teacher waits until the parent has finally finished, and then calmly states that if a parent doesn't want his or her child to go on camp then the child can stay and go to school normally but in someone else's class. And they've been running this camp for Class 5 for 12 years without any problems.

It sounds just like the guide camps I used to go on nearly 30 years ago – apart from the risk of tick infection and only one set of underwear and it possibly reaching -5 at night. But we had those horrible camping loos and had to dig a sewage hole for them to be emptied into, we had no running water and had to light the kitchen fire 3 times a day. And it was fantastic.

So when we get home I tell J that his holiday reading needs to be the Dangerous Book for Boys. He’ll have a whale of a time.