Imagine working in beautiful Switzerland, in a school where behaviour isn’t an issue, and where Lake Geneva, Montreux and some of the finest scenery in the world are right on your doorstep. We spoke to Dr Ilya Eigenbrot, Principal of St. George’s School, to find out about the reality of living and working in Switzerland.
Could you begin by telling us a little bit about St. George’s School in Switzerland?
St. George’s School in Switzerland was originally a British girls’ boarding school set up in 1927 by two Oxford graduates, who were horrified by the First World War and who wanted to establish something that would promote internationalism and the spirit of communication between cultures and countries.
Over the years the school has grown enormously: originally we started off with just a handful of students, and currently, we have over 480 aged three to 18. The biggest change over the years has probably been the fact that it’s now no longer a pure boarding school: we still have a good size boarding section with around 70 borders, but the majority of our students, especially younger ones, are day students who live in the area. There are a lot of multinationals that have set up base in this part of Switzerland, and with our good reputation, it’s always been one of the schools recommended by these companies for their expat employees.
But the school is totally independent, and with all the changes that have occurred, we’ve pretty much stayed true to the original idea behind the school, in that internationalism for us is the most important thing; we have a very broad range of students from 53 different countries this year. And because we serve both the day students’ market and the boarding school market, it means that the kind of students that we have here is particularly broad.
So how has this affected the curricula you teach?
We’ve moved away from the British curricula, so we no longer teach A levels, but we teach the International Baccalaureate Programme (IB), and we teach a modified version of the English National Curriculum up to Key Stage 3; it’s ‘modified’ as it’s particularly heavy in languages – in particular, we have a lot of extra French, and there are a lot more international topics. Then we have the IGCSE for two years, followed by the IB Diploma Programme, or our own High School Diploma Programme.
So tuition is mainly in English?
Yes, most of the teaching is in English, although we have Francophone assistance particularly in the Junior Department, speaking only French to the students some of the time. However that’s about to change, as we’ve been working on what we call ‘progressive bilingualism’ for a while, and it’s something we’ve initiated to meet the needs of the community as well as the expats working here. So we’ve gradually been increasing the students’ exposure to French, and from September 2012 we will be offering a humanities subject in French at Key Stage 3 for the first time in the history of the school. So students with an appropriate level of French will be able to choose to take Geography in either English or French. And we intend to carry that through to the IB.
Would you like to tell us about the results that students achieve?
All our results in publicly examined syllabi are excellent; we have 100% success rate in the IB; 99.6% success in IGCSEs, with 24% A*s and 90.5% A* to C in 2011. These results are similar most years.
Could you tell us a little about Switzerland?
Switzerland is a bit of an unusual country in that it is in the heart of Europe, but it isn’t quite a European country. It sits outside the European Union of course, but now you don’t need your passport to travel between France and Switzerland. However, if you have a book sent to you by Amazon from the UK over a certain value, then Swiss customs will open it up and will charge you customs duty and sales tax, just like in the olden days when you sent things from the UK to France or other parts of continental Europe. All those bureaucratic complications still exist in Switzerland.
So it’s quite a ‘strict’ country, but rules mean that things work very well. You could say the country operates like clockwork: for example, if you need to get a train from one end of the country to the other you can – you can check the timetables and things will be on time. Switzerland has a very low unemployment rate – less than 3% currently, and probably the highest number of immigrants of any European country. At the same time it’s quite conservative, although interestingly there’s just been a major election here and people were expecting a swing to the right and that hasn’t happened. In fact, it’s been the opposite if anything, which is quite a surprise.
It’s also an odd country in the way in which it’s governed. It’s split into ‘cantons’, which are similar to American states, and which have a surprising amount of autonomy. There is grassroots democracy in that any citizen can set up a petition, and if enough signatures are gathered, there can be a referendum on pretty much any topic. Some call it ‘grassroots’ and others call it a waste of time, and it does mean some strange decisions are taken here, even at national level.
In general, in the major urban centres, and in areas where they are used to a large number of expats, it is a very tolerant society.
The main thing about Switzerland is its central location: you’re within easy reach of many places, and from where we are I can be in France in half an hour, and in Italy in just over an hour.
And if you love nature and the outdoors, or hiking, skiing or anything to do with winter sports, there can’t be a better place in Europe.
Could you tell us more about the school’s location?
We have a beautiful large campus on the shores of Lake Geneva, within easy reach of Geneva; it’s one hour to Geneva airport, Lausanne is 20 minutes away by train, and we’re on the main train line so it’s very straightforward; we’re a few minutes from Montreux, where the jazz festival takes place, so we’re very central.
So what kind of standard of living might teachers coming to Switzerland expect?
Salaries are quite high by British standards – perhaps even 50% higher than in the UK – but don’t be fooled because the cost of living is higher. Certainly, I know that families have tried to come here with just one person working and have found it impossible.
For single teachers, it depends on what they want. Our salary scale depends on how many years’ experience you have so that obviously means that the younger you are the lower your salary will be. We have teachers who like the high life and they stay in the urban centres, where life is reasonably expensive, so they’ll have less disposable income at the end of the month because accommodation can be quite pricey, and we have teachers whose dream it is to live in a small chalet half an hour’s drive up into the mountains, and there it is relatively cheap – more so than a comparable location in the UK. If you want to go out and party every night and go to restaurants, it’s very expensive, but if you want to do the same in France, that’s much more affordable. So it really depends on what you want to do.
But I always say to potential staff, you must do your homework and find out what the real cost of living is for you, depending on what your interests are.
So the question on many readers’ lips is probably, do you recruit many Brits, and if so, how do you recruit?
We do. The majority of our staff are still British. I don’t have a particular type of person that we look for, other than that they should be dedicated and good teachers of course, and they must understand that we are both a boarding and a day school, so that means extra duties need to be carried out in the evenings and at the weekends. I also always insist wherever possible that teachers visit the school and see what it’s like because I don’t want surprises for the staff. It is a very hectic place to work because we have so many extracurricular things going on.
I am also interested in teachers who either speak, or who want to speak French. I don’t want the kind of expat Brit who just wants to stay with their mates and go down the English pub in Montreux every night! I want people who would like to integrate into Switzerland. It can be a very insular place, and there are lots of opportunities for expats to stay expats, but that’s not the kind of person I’m looking for.
Another thing that I find quite amusing is that I have sometimes said “this is what we’ll do, this is how we’ll do it,” and staff have said you’d never get away with doing that in a British state school – and been upset that we’re doing something that you can’t do in a British state school. But my response is that that is the whole beauty of being here: we have no agency telling us how we must do things, it is up to our own conscience. Of course, we are accredited by an international body – the CIS – but we have no Swiss government agency telling us which syllabus we must choose and so on. That kind of freedom is wonderful, but it does scare some teachers, especially those who are used to a much more bureaucratic, regulated existence.
And how competitive is it to get a post teaching either at your school or more generally in Switzerland?
It’s a difficult time across Europe; a lot of people are looking for work either because they’ve lost their job or they’re not happy with their work circumstances, and I’ve found certainly most recently we’ve had a huge number of applications for vacancies from the UK. We normally have quite a stable staff – unlike many international schools – so many staff will stay for a number of years. And of course, we can afford to look for the very best teachers.
How much support do you offer to teachers coming over from the UK?
We have offered as much help as we can informally up until now. From now we’re offering any teacher who comes from overseas assistance from an agency here that helps them settle in, and get over the usual bureaucratic hurdles which you’d face in any country but which can be particularly daunting in Switzerland – for example registering with your local commune, sorting out health insurance, because there’s no NHS in Switzerland and all those things that you don’t necessarily know about coming from overseas. We also offer a relocation allowance, and we offer free French lessons for our staff.
Of course one of the great benefits of working here is that teachers can get on with their job and actually enjoy teaching, without worrying about behaviour or discipline issues: we don’t have problems with kids’ behaviour.
Thanks for taking the time to tell us about life at St. George’s, and in Switzerland.