Who are you, and what makes you passionate about education?
In my professional life, I have lived and worked in multiple countries. As a father of 3, I have always been interested in how different education approaches have affected the well-being of my kids and those of friends and colleagues. As we all know, every child is unique and different genetic and environmental factors affect the rate at which they develop. Unfortunately, the education system in many countries is highly prescriptive and has difficulty accommodating individual differences. When I arrived in Switzerland in 2012, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a country well-known for rules and timekeeping was, in fact, highly innovative and flexible in its approach to education.
What has your experience been with vocational and educational training (VET)?
One of my sons completed his schooling without progressing to higher education. The classic academic route would never work for him; throughout his school life, the thought of exams made his hands sweat and filled him with anxiety. In the end, when his school years were complete and “we” thought we had tried everything to help, he had nothing to show for the years of stress. He felt like a failure, and his professional future did not look hopeful.
How wrong we were! Fast forward 4 years, and our son is a full-time, highly skilled and qualified employee of a major manufacturing company, a known brand name around the globe. He earns a salary greater than most of his graduate peers and, more importantly, has a spring in his step as he walks with the pride and self-esteem of someone who has found their calling in life.
So what happened? Our son signed on to an apprenticeship program as part of the Swiss Vocational and educational training (VET) scheme. He completed a federal certificate of competence (CFC) in 3 years, which combines paid practical on-the-job training with classroom-based instruction. After completing the course, he was immediately snapped up for employment in a job he loves. He now has the option to continue in the position and to go for higher diplomas or to go to a college of higher vocational education and training and eventually to university if desired.
What are some key factors that have made VET successful in Switzerland?
First and foremost, the VET system is not new. Since the 1920’s Switzerland has recognised that there is an important place in society for almost everyone and that not everyone is equal or can arrive in the same way or at the same time. The fact that the VET program has been in development for a whole century suggests that this is not a quick fix and that success takes time. Patience is, therefore, a lesson for countries hoping for immediate results in this area.
Secondly, a comprehensive centrally supported system with multiple components measures and evaluates the VET program. There is a strong emphasis on practical, job-related skills and competencies with continuous assessment and evaluation throughout the apprenticeship, culminating in a final examination. The combination of workplace and school-based assessments and certification examinations provides a wide-ranging measurement of competence and outcome quality.
Around two-thirds of school graduates choose from over 250 vocational training routes in Switzerland, contributing to low youth unemployment and a highly vibrant and competitive economy. Switzerland regularly ranks in the top 5 of various different global talent and competitive indexes (e.g. Instead Global Talent Index 2022 No1.), and many of its business and political leaders started off as apprentices (e.g. President of the Swiss Confederation, the CEO of the largest Swiss bank and even Roger Federer started life as an apprentice!).
Where do you see the biggest results of VET learning in Switzerland?
Combining input from academic and vocational sources has been proven to foster fantastic results in Switzerland. Historically, the country is well-known for being a land of revolutionary inventions and distinctive objects (e.g., the Swiss Army knife, Toblerone, watches and cuckoo clocks). Today it is seen as an innovator with a strong future in multiple sectors, from Pharmaceuticals and Life sciences to Biotechnology, ICT and Robotics.
Switzerland’s education model is by no means perfect, and academic and exam-based education remains a core measurement of academic competence. However, by promoting and supporting alternative routes, such as VET, Switzerland opened new possibilities for strong creativity and innovation to continue inspiring students.
My conclusion is that a balanced education model is fundamental for a successful economy and a happier society.