Don’t Look Back

Expat Corner: Don't Look Back

Choice of schools in England is a Big Thing. To try to explain the Bigness of this Thing to a non-Brit would be rather futile and somewhat like trying to explain what a platypus is to Missy M (my six-year-old daughter). The question of “What school will you be sending your child to?” is one that emerges just as said child comes out of the womb and is accompanied by just as much pain and anxiety. There are the league tables to research, compare, and endlessly talk about to anyone who will listen; other parents to trade information with, catchment areas to consider and what church you will need to pretend to attend (yes, really).

Despite all the drama around actually getting Missy M into school, I had dreams about what it would be like for her. I had created little pictures in my mind of what she would look like in uniform and of some of the things she would learn and games she would play. I mixed in a great deal of my own memories from my childhood in England and painted an idyllic picture in my head of school life.

When we moved to Switzerland I had to let all of these dreams and worries go. It was a relief to drop the thinking about “which school is best” but also rather sad to let go of the future I had built in my head about Missy M going to a little English village primary school, with school fayres, Christmas shows and sports days with egg-and-spoon races.

I had to drop expectations and assumptions about what “schooling” meant in Switzerland. I found that if I did not, my mind would struggle to compare the Swiss and English systems. I would become judgemental and a tad panicky, and of course friends and family joined in with a whirlwind of confusing opinion. My delightful discoveries were little kindergartens in every neighbourhood and the simple allocation of places. My shocking discoveries were: the kindergarten hours, no uniforms, and learning to read and write only at seven years old.

Moving to a new country often means blowing up everything you know and starting again. Unless you have access to excellent international schools (and a paycheck/package that allows you to take advantage of their wonderful services), moving means changing one state school system for another, and one set of values and ideas about children and education for another. The problem is that because we have been raised in another country, as part of their education system, we have adopted their set of values about how schooling “should” happen. Anything else looks darn weird.

Comparison is a futile and painful activity that I strongly urge you to avoid. The relocation to Switzerland is now part of your family’s history. Reality is only and ever in the place in which you stand. Here. This land and this system. For all intents and purposes, this is the only system. Forget everything you thought you knew and embrace what is here.

I find it so interesting that after only three years of being here, my assumptions and beliefs about what “schooling” means have changed considerably; the kindergarten system, no uniforms, and reading at seven now seem really normal. Reality is far more interesting than dreams of egg-and-spoon races back in England.

By Tammy Furey

Tammy works with expat parents in Switzerland and internationally to help them move from stress, isolation, frustration, anxiety, loneliness and a sense of being lost to being stress-free and happy no matter where they are in the world. Tammy is a coach, writer and blogger who lives in St. Gallen with her husband and daughter whilst attempting (badly) to speak German and fold her paper recycling in the correct manner.

Illustration by Laura Munteanu

Laura has studied Journalism and Advertising, and has been working as a journalist and an illustrator. She has been illustrating for magazines, websites, charity and different campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and her 5 -year- old daughter.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Look Back

  • September 4, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    I suppose just because I’m living here, and am now in my 5th year, I don’t see my life here as set, and unlike many perhaps, it doesn’t trouble me or my husband to move out of choice. The kids see a move as an adventure too.
    We are leaving Switzerland and it is solely because I am not happy with the local school system, and I had an age 8/9 cut off to have my mind hopefully changed. It wasn’t.
    It is very tricky to compare Swiss schools, as the classes vary even within schools let alone within cantons. One teacher’s approach is very different to another. I find this particularly true in Kindergarten. The school curriculum however, is closely adhered to in Bern.
    To sum up, I want to go because where we are, the system is not holistic. It’s fairly high pressure, so a child who gets the concepts at a slower pace will spend most of their school days feeling under pressure. The very sharp kids may get bored and not stretched. The pre-school assessment includes a variety of measurable tests – if a child can’t hop on one leg for ten seconds (and other things), then there’s a question mark over whether they’re ready for school, and they can be held back a year – but never an offer of tricks and games which lead to hopping on one leg.
    There is no drama or dance, and general self expression in art is overlooked in favour of measurable crafts such as finger knitting etc. There is reliance on natural talent, rather than being nurtured and shown something new. There is no value placed on enquiry, and creating a love of learning. It’s rigid from year to year, so you have an advantage for a second child, because they’re going to get exactly the same material. And if you’re a dreamer, well, you will be judged, and won’t have your creativity nurtured at all.
    A Swiss teacher friend told me this though: “Our system is S**T. But if you know that, you can work with it. The teachers want the parents to work with their children up to three times longer than they can in school, in order to cover the work. I went into school every Wednesday afternoon and brought home every book, and we used that free time to catch up on anything that hadn’t been completed during class. They want you to do that, but can’t really ask, because that would be admitting their system isn’t great…” Add to that, the general way, is that parents steer clear from school, even though they are invited to visit whenever they want.
    There is a tendency here to lable too many children ADD, when they are not. They can get funding for ADD. Many “different” children end up going to expensive private schools, if their parents can afford it.
    There is also no firm anti bullying policy. There has been an increase in bullying according to our paediatrician – the bullied children are getting younger, and they’re being bullied by other children or teachers. If a child is bullied, the general approach in our area, is that the bullied child needs pyschological counselling because they need to become tougher and stand up for themselves. I know far too many parents who have had troubles like this, and have ended up switching their childrens’ school after getting nowhere with their own school, and after great stress and countless sleepless nights over drawn out talks with the Schulkreis. What message does that send to the child who was bullied?
    I cannot take the risk of putting my very different children through a school system like this, which can’t cater for the beautiful variance all our kids have. Yes I realise certain subjects must be covered in a curriculum in any country, but that’s not my point.
    There’s also pressure on kids to decide what they want to do at Uni (assuming they are chanelled for Uni) or in an apprenticeship after school, and this two way streaming happens at a very early age (decisions are being made around the age of 11).
    For our area, our school is actually quite a good one, but it’s not for me I’m afraid. I envy people who are very happy with it, or who have found schools unlike the ones I have been exposed to, because Switzerland is a beautiful place to live. Sounds like there’s a great little French speaking school down in Villars, which has more of a TEDS approach to education. Pity we can’t find work down that way. There are new initiatives taking place even in Bern (e.g.. Basisstufe), probably modelling themselves on the Finns, but it’ll take time for them to filter in, if they ever do…. it won’t be a moment too soon.
    One great friend said to me “Thank goodness the likes of Rowan Atkinson weren’t born here – because their eccentricities would have been totally stamped on until they conformed, and what a loss that would have been”.
    We had a choice of UK or NZ, and I’d be happy with either, but we’re heading Down Under because the education has that holistic approach I crave. No pressure on our relatives there who didn’t quite know which direction to go down, who are now all in their 20’s, and have all found their way very successsfully and certainly.

    • September 5, 2014 at 8:14 am


      You are writing of the fear that many of us hold about the school system in Switzerland. I am sitting here typing with a big old knot in my belly. I hear that this is your truth and that you are making a decision based on your experiences of the system as it stands in your area. It sounds like they are doing an amazing job of crushing individuality and creativity.

      I am interested in the gap between what is happening at this present time and our fears of the future and/or being haunted by the ghosts of the past. I look to free parents from the worry and anxiety of what “might” happen. If I were to start to think of what school might be like for my daughter, or whether she will fall foul of the streaming system at 11, I might go mad. I know what a bad school can be like: I was raised in England and finally moved schools after the bullying got so bad I had concusion. If I bring these memories forward and apply my idea of school to what she is experiencing then I will be a nervous wreck. I look for what is, rather than what I project it to be.

      This might sound like I advocate living in la-la land and ignoring what is happening. No! I advocate looking at what is happening and staying out of lala land (often the place of nightmares!). I salute what you are doing for your children, as you are living in the moment, have seen the truth of the situation for yourself and your children and have taken the appropriate action. My mother did the same for me all those years ago and it changed my life.

      If you want to talk more about this, please drop me an email


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