Teaching children from all over the world
Bern, the capital city, with its strategic position in the centre of Switzerland, boasts a large international community. Besides all the foreign embassies, there are also numerous headquarters of multi-national concerns like Ebay, Pepsico and the Universal Postal Union who have offices in Bern. Families from all over the world who relocate to Switzerland to work in these companies seek out English language schooling for their children. The International School of Bern provides this service, offering all three internationally accredited Baccalaureate Programmes covering Primary Years, Middle Years and the Diploma Programme. It has remained the only English medium school that continues up to secondary level in the Bern area since it opened in 1961.
Friendly and articulate, Richard Swart was recently appointed as Director of the International School. Previous to his appointment in Bern, Swart was employed in International Schools in China and the Philippines. There are currently around 320 children from over 50 nationalities enrolled in the school, says Swart, including children from 29 international embassies. It is a veritable United Nations of children with diverse faiths, ethnicities, and cultures. The diversity creates a kind of homogeneity in the close-knit campus as a majority of pupils find themselves in the same situation: having come to Switzerland from elsewhere. The inevitable transitory nature of ISBerne’s clientele, where children typically arrive and leave again within two or three years, is acknowledged and accommodated in the teaching methodology. Thus, rather than following strict textbook based coursework, pupils are given the tools of learning that they can take with them anywhere in the world.
The staff face the challenge of accommodating children —some of whom cannot speak any English and who often arrive at random times of the year— from distant countries with varying educational systems. Swart explains how they tackle this challenge by keeping their classes small and getting to know each child and tailoring their teaching to each individual. “The emphasis is on teaching children how to acquire knowledge with broad-based themes like ‘Time and Space’,” says Swart. “themes that often run across age groups and levels.” Rather than being pummelled by constant testing, the children are taught to question and think laterally by working together in group projects. Swart repeats the phrase that is posed to the pupils: ‘How do you know what you know?’ The children are taught how to evaluate sources and think about overarching questions through a broad curriculum that includes music, art and theatre.
The director is a great proponent of blended learning and speaks with enthusiasm about their online distance-learning programme, which was set up a couple of years ago and which caters for children from as far afield as Dubai. The online coursework offers a possibility for children who do not have direct access to a good education to acquire an internationally accredited qualification. Swart is keen to see this interactive, technological access to learning being extended at ISBerne as a means of enriching the ways in which children can acquire knowledge and an understanding of the world. How does one integrate an international school into its local Bernse community? Swart and the Marketing Coordinator, Deirdre Coghlan, outline some of their outreach programmes, examples of which include how the children painted an underpass close to the school, or involvement with the local charitable organisation, Velos Für Afrika. According to Swart, a core aspect of the school is their emphasis on promoting an ethical awareness in children regarding the environment, sustainability, and community service.
A significant landmark for the school is the recent vote by the Canton of Bern to financially assist in the outfitting of a new campus on an open site a couple of stops down the tramline. Currently ISBerne is housed in six separate buildings, some of which date back over 50 years. As the school has grown during recent years, its campus has revealed its limitations. A new campus is sorely needed to accommodate the growing population of international children. One might ask why the Canton would be prepared to invest taxpayers’ money into a private school? The argument in favour of supporting the building of a new campus is that Bern, as the capital of Switzerland and the location of many embassies and multinational companies, needs to be able to attract and accommodate the children of all the foreign nationals who find employment there. If there were not an option for families to educate their children in English, then it would be a deterrent both to them and to the enterprises considering a professional relocation to Bern. Thus it was seen to be in the interest of Bern to continue their support in the provision of quality education to the international professionals in the Canton. This project will no doubt boost the reputation of ISBerne, giving it new impetus to pursue its ambitious educational goals.
Article by Anna Roos