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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (X) - The Swiss Educational System -

This year I have been taking part in many meetings and research activities overseas, and I am writing this article in a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. I have come to Switzerland to attend an academic conference; last week I participated in a research conference and field observation in America, and next week I will be going to England at the invitation of the British Council. Since these conferences present a good opportunity to do so, I am engaged in gathering information and conducting interviews on the subject of trends in educational reforms and the problems of young people, in particular, with respect to secondary school education.

In this article and the several to follow, I shall describe the present state of education in these countries, and use them as a point of departure for thinking about the state of education in Japan. First, I will begin by describing the situation in Switzerland.

The Swiss educational system has basically the same form as that of Germany, and it has these characteristics: 1) rather than the single-track system like that of Japan or America, students' future opportunities for academic advancement are divided into different tracks depending on what secondary school they attend; 2) upper secondary education consists of two major tracks, a full-time academic track at a gymnasium and a part-time vocational education track that assumes students are involved in an apprenticeship; 3) while a few private schools do exist, fundamentally, education is all public from primary school through university, and the system is fairly standardized throughout the Confederation although there are some minor differences among the twenty-six cantons.

To describe these specifics as they are in Zurich, children enter primary school at the age of six, and compulsory education is six years of primary school and three years of lower secondary school. However, unlike Japan, middle school is divided into three tracks depending on students' level of academic ability: three-year Secondary School lower level ("Realschule"), three-year Secondary School upper level ("Sekundarschule"), and six-year Gymnasium. In 1996 the percentage of the student population in the first year of lower secondary school enrolled in these schools was 41%, 49% and 10%, respectively.

Secondary School upper level students can advance to the gymnasium, and the majority of those that do enter a four-year gymnasium after completing two years of study. One can enter the gymnasium after graduating from Secondary School upper level but the number of those that do is small, and on the whole they enter the four-year gymnasium at the first grade level. In this way, secondary education is multi-tracked, and in 1996, the percentage of the student population in the third year of lower secondary school enrolled in each of these schools was 42%, 40% and 18%, respectively. There are eight universities in Switzerland, but one can only enter them if one has graduated from a gymnasium. In other words, only the 18% of students who are enrolled in a gymnasium at the third year of middle school have a ticket to university entrance, and including those who entered a gymnasium after graduating from Secondary School upper level, this amounts to only about 20% of students.

On the other hand, the majority of students who enter secondary schools other than a gymnasium begin apprenticeships after graduation, and work for three or four days a week, and attend vocational school for three or four years on the remaining one or two days. The apprenticeship normally lasts four years, and comes with a salary.

Students graduate from gymnasium or vocational school around the age of 19, but since there is a four-month compulsory military service for men, most young men do this before entering university or employment. Gymnasium students must pass a final exam to graduate, and whether or not a student can enter the university or department of his or her choice can be influenced by the results of this examination. About 15% of students in a given age group go on to university per year, but unlike in Japan, universities here are similar to advanced academic and professional schools, and one receives a master's degree after four to six years (there is no bachelor's degree). After this, the doctoral degree takes another three years.

On the other hand, after graduating from vocational school, one either enters employment or goes on to a three (or four) year technical college. As for those who enter employment, there are some who find a job at the firm where they served as an apprentice, though this varies depending on the profession or firm. Instead, most people find work at different firms or workplaces. Also, 15% of students in a given age group attend technical college.

The above covers the salient points of the Swiss educational system, but considering the state of the Japanese educational system, where more people are tending to advance to higher levels of education and competition on exams is so extreme, there are surely many readers who will wonder how this kind of system can function. And so, in my next article, I will consider the structure and philosophy behind it.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" November, 1997 issue published by Benesse Corporation]

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