Romans d’ado is more than a four-film documentary. In French the title scans like both “Swiss French Teens” and “Novels of Teens”; it’s subtitled “Seven Years, Seven Lives, Four Films”. The seven lives are those of children from Yverdon-les-Bains, a pleasant lakeside town of 26,000 inhabitants. Director Béatrice Bakhti followed them through their adolescence in 2002-2008, i.e. from dial-up modems to smartphones, anti-Bush marches to Obama’s inauguration.
The kids are white Swiss nationals; their families have ties to France, Italy, and Poland, with income brackets in the lower or lower-middle income range. They are largely destined for apprenticeships rather than academic colleges. If there’s such a thing as an image of “normal” small-town Swiss teens in the early 2000s, this is probably it.
Difficult to overstate how successfully Romans d’ados pulls in the viewer, especially those first two episodes, uncontrolled hormones rampaging through every scene. The teens’ bedroom monologues reveal intense fears, uninhibited tears (and many of them), plenty of naivety – but often surprising wisdom. Their vivid anecdotes and reflections include a grim first sexual encounter, great sadness at an absent father, and profound loneliness. The movies were released nearly ten years after the earliest clips were taken, and our protagonists, upon turning adult, showed great courage to exhibit their younger selves to the wider public.
The teacher in me loved the scenes between teenage peers, away from authority figures, and wanted more of them. In an early scene, for example, a delightful twelve-year-old is mercilessly bullied. Later, our heroes will pass notes around classrooms, kiss awkwardly at clubs, rehearse cockily at band practice, and banter at training weekends for the Swiss Army.
The parents take considerable supporting roles. Seven different family constellations and ideas about raising teens are put in practice, “live”. If possible, I’d advise watching Romans d’ados with friends or family – having strong opinions on the parenting is inevitable, especially when conflicts break out (which they do, relentlessly). Some of the most touching moments are rare displays of love between parent and child.
The series loses momentum in the third and fourth movies as changes stabilize and the teens get better at emotional restraint. But by then you’re hooked, as the journey from 12 to 18 is one of the most turbulent narratives of all human life, and Bakhti’s kind-hearted camera allows universal truths to emerge from the very specific. I became desperate to find out what became of our awkward, gangly heroes. Romans d’ado is a feat of television and a must-watch, particularly the first two episodes.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (easy).
Availability: PlaySuisse; Vimeo has a VOD version with English subtitles!
Extra: If you’re fan enough to watch all of the four-part documentary, the following is a must-watch: Infrarouge: Adolescence: je t’aime moi non plus! It’s an hour-long chat show filmed shortly after the film’s premiere, including reflections from all the seven stars, several of the parents, and the filmmakers. You may also be interested in Romans d’adulte, Vol. 1 & 2, a crowdfunded follow-up documentary catching up with most of the original cast in their mid-twenties (VOD on Vimeo, includes English subs).
Swissness Lab Report: Vocational Education
Perhaps the biggest jolt for viewers outside of Switzerland is that four of the six teens begin apprenticeships at the age of fifteen: a kindergarten teacher, a chef, an office administrator and a professional waiter. Of the remaining two, one has had significant difficulties in life, and needs to repeat some basic courses. That leaves only one who goes to what they call “Gymnase” (elsewhere called Lycée, Liceo, Gymnasium or Kantonsschule), aiming for a degree at an academic university.
The ratio is pretty much representative of the Switzerland as a whole. Only around quarter of fifteen-year-olds go to Gymnasium. Xavier, the kid in Romans d’ados who goes to Gymnase, will take what we in the UK would call A-levels and be able to study, say, History, or Law, or (God forbid) English at an academic university like the University of Zurich.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of Swiss fifteen-year-olds attend vocational secondary school and begin apprenticeships and education getting them ready for the world of work. Industry figures work closely with the government to monitor the number of apprentices needed in each sector. By the time the kids are 18 or 19 and done with school, they’ll have option to go to a vocational uni – what we in the UK used to call Polytechnics – to become midwives, engineers or social workers. There is overlap between the two – a Swiss architect might have gone through a more practical vocational path, starting out as a common joiner, or she might have more theoretical and conceptual skills gained at the prestigious ETH academic university. Furthermore, the vocational journey isn’t just confined to “working with your hands”-type jobs. Switzerland’s services industry relies on its legions of commercial apprentices, highly trained teens who start off at the checkout of your local bank or advising clients on insurance deals, and who might end up at the School of Management and Law if they choose to go for vocational tertiary education.
There are a couple of major differences to a country like the UK. Firstly, doing the vocational path isn’t heavily stigmatized like it is where I come from. For example, of the seven members of the Bundesrat (the Swiss executive with its rotating presidency), two took the vocational path: Ueli Maurer came up through the commercial apprenticeship path, Karin Keller-Sutter first went through trade school then did a vocational degree in translation. In the UK, general education has a much higher than average chance of boosting your chances of work, and vocational training has “no education premium” compared to other OECD countries (OECD 2020a) .
Secondly, a much higher proportion of upper-secondary pupils do apprenticeships than in the UK – 64% compared to 44% (OECD 2020a, 2020b). These numbers also need to be taken with a big pinch of salt. According to the OECD statistics, “arts and humanities” is the most common vocational path, which makes me think an awful lot of those 44% are doing foundational courses to get into art school or the like.
Thirdly, the vocational path in Switzerland almost always has a heavy schooling part – 90% of apprentices are in a “combined work- and school-based programme”, compared to 44% of them in the UK.
The reason for all that school work isn’t just some noble humanistic goal. Achieving a diploma in any part of the Swiss system, vocational or academic, means not only that you’re ready to fulfil some task in the wider world, or that you can get access to some cool new education, like a university or a masters. It also means that you can hop of your ladder and on to the other one. Imagine you’ve done an apprenticeship as a insurance salesperson and have realized, by the time you turned 19 and are finishing your exams, that you’re really interested in some of the more abstract maths that’s come up in economics class. You decide you want to study maths at the University of Basel. But your vocational diploma says you can only get into some vocational university to study management. Fortunately your diploma also means that you have a certain minimum standard of academic competences. You can hop from your vocational ladder to the academic one by means of a transition course, which will boost your already existing academic skills to university level. After one or two years you’ll be ready for maths at Uni.
A small number of schools in Switzerland specialize in these transition courses taking students in their twenties with apprenticeship backgrounds – salespeople and nurses, mechanics and graphic designers – all dedicated to obtaining the Matura and becoming lawyers, doctors, historians and mathematicians. They are some of the most motivated classrooms in the country, and at their best exemplify a utopian spirit in Swiss education.
The quality of Swiss vocational education is often starkly represented when I compare experiences in shops, banks or administrative centres here in Switzerland to the ones I visit in the UK. A typical eighteen-year-old bank employee is likely to be highly polite, professional and knowledgeable, whether you’re opening a new account or freaking out about the lack of money in your existing one. A young salesperson in an electronic good store may not the appliance you’re asking about, but at least someone else in the store who can fill you in. Young Post Office trainees, kids behind the desk at the train station, any administrative position in the regional government is likely to be extremely professional – and believe me, to an immigrant with experience in Germany and France, this is not to be taken for granted. Then I go back to the UK and the kid at my bank bullshits his way through scripts he learned in two days’ worth of training.
One problem of the vocational system is that it makes the academic path – i.e. the grammar schools or Gymnasium with their Matura exams – more restricted. Any fifteen-year-old who knows they want to try for academic university will need to get certain grades and pass entrance exams to get into Gymnasium. This leads to stress, especially in cities, where doing the Matura still has more cachet, and wealthy parents apply great pressure on their children to do the Matura.
Also, the Gymnasium system is not very standardized, with each school or canton setting separate entrance criteria. The Gymnasien in French and Italian-speaking Switzerland are famously a lot easier to get into than their Swiss German counterparts, especially in rural Switzerland where geography is an additional hindrance.
But overall I’m a big fan and proponent of the Swiss vocational system. It gets a lot of kids into the world of work earlier compared to my home country. It gets them earning and managing proper money, and thinking about their futures too. I know too many students at universities in the UK who study subjects which have no bearing whatsoever on their future careers – the linguist who enrols in a graduate programme at Aldi, or the philosopher who ends up in IT. All I knew at fifteen was that I was good at English and probably wanted to keep studying French so I could go and live abroad one day, but I had no idea about money or vocation, and I ended up studying English Literature and French, with dubious results!
Vocational and Professional Education and Training in Switzerland Facts and Figures (governmental PDF, 2022)
OECD info on vocational educational training in Switzerland (PDF 2020)
OECD info on vocational educational training in the UK (PDF 2020)
Swissinfo general article on the state school system here