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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (XI) - Swiss Apprenticeships -

As I explained in my previous article, when Swiss children reach the point of advancement to the secondary school level (at age 12) they are tracked into two types of three-year lower secondary schools ("Real schule" and "Sekundar-schule") or a six-year gymnasium; and this tracking takes place with the teacher's guidance, based on the child's plans and academic record. With regard to the gymnasium, in particular, the majority of students who go on to attend one do so by means of a recommendation, but when the student does not receive a recommendation, it is possible to enter a gymnasium by taking a public examination.

This system can function because the proportion of those who attend a gymnasium and then a traditional university is kept at a level below about 20% of the same age group population, and such an education is not really valued except by those working in the research or educational professions or certain specialist professions. Moreover, vocational choice and career through the mechanism of apprenticeship and vocational school, technical college, and then employment is upheld as an advantageous "mainstream route" by a broad range of the labor market.

What are the conditions that enable the system of apprenticeship and vocational school to function? Among Japanese scholars and critics there are those who argue for introducing apprenticeships as a strategy for educational reform, but we cannot change the system as easily as they say we can.

When Swiss children graduate from lower secondary school (at age 15), they search for a firm or business that will take them on as apprentices. They collect information about apprenticeships and send out letters of introduction from public apprenticeship introduction centers, or, with the help of acquaintances or relatives, submit application letters to firms or workplaces of their choice, and, after undergoing an examination or interview, they are hired. Also, only those who have been hired as apprentices are allowed to go to the vocational secondary school of their choice.

Apprenticeships are managed by individual trades, and each trade decides its minimum wage. The hiring of apprentices takes place through an agreement between the individual firm or workplace, the trade, and the governmental labor office. In short, the history and tradition of the guild system is behind the apprenticeship system, and on one hand it is supported by the business community's morale and its sense of responsibility towards the education of young people, and on the other hand it is maintained as a co-operative enterprise between participating firms, trades, and the government.

However, nowadays the apprenticeship system is starting to lose stability. Above all, the system relies on a sufficient number of apprenticeship posts (i.e., a demand), but the number of these posts has decreased dramatically since the middle of the 1980s due to an economic recession and the growing pressure of international economic competition, and this has been directly responsible for the instability. However, even more serious is the change that has started to emerge in the career ambitions of young people along with the advance of consumer capitalism, and also, a passive stance toward maintaining this system has become more prevalent among the trades that had actually supported it. In particular, the fact that this tendency has started to become apparent in the banking business, Switzerland's biggest industry, is the biggest sign of the system's instability.

These days it is not certain what will become of the Swiss apprenticeship system, but as the above explanation makes clear, it is not simply an educational system that we can think of in the same terms as the Japanese one. It is a system that, with the co-operation of schools, businesses and workplaces, sponsors vocational training, personal development and vocational choice for young people; it is a system that is supported by a long historical tradition, the consciousness and sense of responsibility of the business world towards cultivating human resources and human development, and more than that, by people's attitude towards education and working life (i.e., satisfaction and trust).

Historical tradition has a tendency to support the status quo with laws of inertia that are customary. However, along with the advance of consumer capitalism and information capitalism, the models, beliefs and trust that support this system are starting to show signs of instability, albeit only partially. This is the situation which Switzerland is now facing. And this instability will become an increasingly serious matter the more lifestyles and professional ambitions diversify, and the stronger the consciousness of equality with regard to educational and vocational opportunity becomes. As is the case in other Western countries, this is because the structure of the Swiss system arose from assumptions based in traditional class differences, gender discrimination and other social differentiation.

Getting back to the Japanese educational system, from the very beginning it developed with equal opportunity as its basic principle. We might view the excessive value placed on educational background and the intensification of entrance exam competition as side effects of this principle. However, assuming there is a way to overcome this, while there may be some things we can learn from the Swiss system, it all depends on whether we can realize the full extent of the cultural richness to overcome these side effects.

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