It’s the end of term, or soon will be, in many places, but some Swiss schools are already wondering how they are going to hire enough staff for the beginning of the next school year.
The teacher shortage has been described as acute in many cantons, which are in charge of educational matters in Switzerland. Schools are scrambling to get their staffing in place ahead of next term, starting in August and September.
In the northwest Swiss canton of Aargau, the situation is “the most extreme it’s ever been,” a local primary school head told Swiss public television SRF at the end of May. “Sometimes there’s not even a single job application for some jobs,” said Linda Villiger. Current vacant posts number over 200.
At the beginning of July, canton Bern was advertising almost 80 posts for its state schools and in canton Zurich it was around 270.
The situation was confirmed by a recent survey of school principals that found that on average c.39% of primary school heads were finding it difficult to fill jobs in their schools.
Canton Bern already took measures back in February when it sent out letters to retired teachers asking if they could temporarily come back to the classroom. It already uses trainee teachers when necessary.
In some places, schools are reported to have resorted to using sports coaches for sports lessons, or staff have jumped in to teach at higher levels than they are qualified for. French-speaking cantons Fribourg and Valais are also expecting teacher shortages, partly due to a wave of early retirements after unpopular changes to teachers’ pension funds.
Why a shortage?
More than 10,000 teachers a year are needed to plug the gap, says Stefan Wolter, a professor of the economics of education at the University of Bern who put together the country’s 2018 Swiss Education Report. The shortage includes 7,000 teachers at primary level and more than 3,000 at secondary level.
“There’s been a double baby boom,” he explained to SRF. “The first was those born in the 1950s and 60s, who are the teachers about to retire, and the other was over the past two or more years, with more children being born. It’s a good thing for Switzerland, but the children are coming up to school age now and need to have more teachers.”
According to SRF, 5,000 trainee teachers graduate each year, leaving a yearly teacher shortfall of 5,000. Of these, around a fifth – 1,000 – will have dropped out of teaching within five years, or many of them will eventually work part time, primarily for family reasons.
In fact, whereas 20 years ago most primary teachers in Switzerland worked full time, the average primary school teacher, a profession dominated by women, now works 63%, so just over three days a week.
Wolter has two solutions to the teacher shortage: making classes bigger, which is a very unpopular suggestion, or increasing work percentages. “If every teacher raised his or her work percentage by on average 10%, there would be no teacher shortage anymore,” Wolter told SRF.
In Geneva, teachers work on average 84% because the canton has effectively banned part-time working, so staff can either work 100% or job share (2×50%).
Wolter thinks setting a limit on small part-time working percentages, to a minium of 30-50%, could work for other cantons too. However, canton Fribourg’s 2013 attempt to stop 20-30% jobs caused an outcry and was abandoned.
Pushing women out?
The head of the German-speaking Federation of Swiss Teachers, Beat Zemp, does not agree with liming small percentages, as he thinks this would discourage women with small children who are likely to increase their work percentages later on.
He suggests encouraging people to get back into the profession or using retirees, if really necessary, to help stem the shortage.
“It’s important that we train enough young people and ensure that teacher training remains attractive, so it’s a sustainable solution rather than driving women out of the profession,” he told SRF.
The federation has already highlighted teacher pay – it’s for example lower in the cantons of Aargau and Bern – as well as working conditions as key areas that could be improved and help retain teachers.