Some 257 million children worldwide do not get the opportunity to attend school. In Sub-Saharan Africa the standard of education is so poor that around 60% of children are barely able to read and write by the time they leave primary school. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the already precarious state of education systems in developing countries. The demographic shift to a rapidly growing youth-based population, combined with poor education systems, has far-reaching individual, social and economic implications for the development of countries in the Global South.
Switzerland has a top quality education system. Ninety-five per cent of children attend primary and lower-secondary school. All children in Switzerland receive a high-quality education irrespective of socio-economic background, language or residency status. Unfortunately, the situation is different in many developing countries. Switzerland's experience and expertise in education can therefore be a source of inspiration for the work of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and strengthen partner countries' school systems on the ground.
On 26 April 2022, the SDC and Movetia, the Swiss agency for the promotion of exchanges and mobility in the education system, hosted a policy conference in Bern. At the conference, educational, policy, development cooperation and research experts discussed approaches to leveraging the strengths of Switzerland's school system more effectively in international cooperation work, along the lines of the approaches used for vocational education and training.
This includes the priority given, by international standards, to a high-quality, compulsory school system structured in accordance with the federalist system, which means that in each canton the school curriculum reflects the local context, the main language of instruction is one of Switzerland's official languages and multilingualism is promoted at the same time. Some current examples of development cooperation work inspired by the Swiss school system were presented at the conference, including supporting multilingualism in Thailand and integrating children and adolescents, who were late starters in education, into the Nigerien school system.
"We are not looking to export our educational expertise to other contexts. Rather, the value-added Swiss school system can serve as inspiration to educational authorities and other stakeholders in our partner countries," says Sabina Handschin, an education expert at the SDC. "Switzerland's decentralised school system can be thought of as a large model construction kit that allows solutions to be built and adjusted to different local contexts. Since its launch, we have been gratified to see how popular this initiative is with the Swiss education community, because sharing ideas with representatives from school systems in other countries can also provide inspiration for the Swiss education system."
Switzerland's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 gives education high priority. Providing equal access to high-quality basic services, including education and health, is one of the four main objectives of Switzerland's International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24. Education is a key tool in reducing poverty. A solid school education is crucial to individual, social and economic development and equal participation in society. It is also essential to obtaining qualifications through vocational training. Switzerland therefore intentionally invests in high-quality education for all. The state education system also performs a vital integrative function, with children from different social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds all attending the same school. This approach is also exemplified in Switzerland's international cooperation in the field of basic education.