Your company is relocating to Switzerland and you want to understand the full picture about local Swiss schools before making school and housing decisions. The location of your company will determine the canton of your future residence, but if you have children, choosing the right school, and finding a home in proximity to that school, is probably a big factor in your housing decision.
Local village schools offer the automatic solution of proximity to home, as well as integration with neighbors and local customs. But you want to understand the pros and compromises of this situation before making this choice. Here is the information you need to make an informed decision for your family.
What you need to know about Swiss public schools
Some technical background
In the past, Swiss education was regulated by the individual cantons, so there were significant variations between cantons. An initiative in 2009, called the HarmoS program, was developed to make cantonal education more consistent throughout the country and to help it align better with the educational standards in neighboring European countries. However, variations still exist between cantons and certain areas have voted not to conform to these regulations. Lucerne and Zug are two cities that have chosen to maintain their cantonal independence.
Switzerland has four different national languages, so instruction in each canton is conducted in the local national language for all major subjects. Instruction in a second language is introduced later, during primary school class 5 (age 8). As of 2015 a third language will be introduced in class 7 (age 10). Although widely spoken in Switzerland, English is not a national language and therefore is not a primary language of instruction in any canton. But it is the second language of instruction in 14 out of 17 Swiss German cantons. German is the second language in the French speaking areas of Switzerland. As of 2015 English will be added as the third language to the curriculum for everyone in French speaking areas as of class 7 (age 10). This has developed because of the increasing importance of English in higher education, particularly in scientific fields and global communication.
Second languages remain "foreign" languages. These are not to be confused with a bilingual education where main subjects are taught in another language. However, bilingual fluency/competency should be obtained by all students in the second language by the end of obligatory school age (age 15).
Primary school (entry age 4)
Age 4-7 (includes pre-school years) / Class 1-4
Primary language only
Age 8-9 / Class 5-6
Second language - national or English
Age 10-12 / Class 7-9
Third language - English or national
Compulsory school begins at age four, including two years of preschool, which is currently not obligatory in all cantons. The birth date cut off for entrance to a particular school year is strict, however it varies depending on the canton, so please check with your local school first. A common date is set to be reached in 2018/2019, and a uniform HarmoS class grading system will be synchronized in most cantons.
The primary school program is uniform through the age of 11/12. After this point students are streamed based on grades, motivation, and examinations, and are directed into different paths in lower secondary school (age 12-15). Compulsory schooling can end at age 15. Post-compulsory education, including professional certificates or vocational apprenticeships, as well as the university preparatory program of the Matura (Maturité), continue until age 18-19. Entrance to this pre-university program is very competitive and only about 20-25% of the school population follow this stream. All graduates with the Maturité (Matura) exam are admitted to university. Graduation rates reflect the highly competitive atmosphere of Swiss education where many students compete to successfully pass this first year of university.
Benefits of the Swiss public system
Once you have an overview of the system you will note there are numerous benefits.
Children are often able to walk to school and have friends in the neighborhood to play with after school. Swiss schools also encourage and teach independence in children, safety on roads, and mastery of public transport at an early age.
Children will be taught in the local language and customs, including strong emphasis on independence and self motivation. Local communes are the base for after school activities and may offer lunchtime canteens on an individual basis. Check for availability in your particular area as not all villages/school districts have the same facilities.
Local schools are financed by taxes and thus are free. If transport is required to another village/town, this transport is supplied by the commune, "pedibus", or by public transport for older students.
High quality facilities
Schools are generally modern, well equipped with technology, and have reasonable student/teacher ratios, with class sizes of approximately 19-25 students. Cantons spend approximately 30% of their budget on schooling.
Language support and concessions for new non-mother-tongue students are available in general during the first year until the child reaches a suitable level for integration. Intensive language immersion classes will be combined with participation with the main stream class when possible and phased out as soon as proficiency is attained. Concessions on grading are offered in the first year for older students to compensate for the language acquisition process. Note: Students can also be held back to an appropriate class level to assure mastery of the curriculum in the local system.
Constraints or challenges of the public education system
Daily class schedule
Weekly classes are held in general 4/5 days a week in mornings and afternoons (depending on the canton. Primary school students are expected to return home or can be enrolled in a lunch program. Meals and lunch time and/or after school extracurricular care until 18:00 may be offered by the commune on a fee paying basis or staffed by a volunteer organization. This is not guaranteed in all communes. Organization of these services is independent of the academic program.
Communication is in the local language
Communication with the school will be in the local language so your ability to understand teachers, school policies and reports is also important. Swiss school contact with parents is less frequent than you may expect from your home country, and less open to parental involvement, so be prepared for the differences.
Language of instruction
Careful consideration is required if your child is pursuing instruction in a language not spoken at home. Swiss preparation for future employment in trades, service industry, commercial, business, and academic fields are broad, but may not include the same qualifications as in your home country. If your future plans may not be in Switzerland, be prepared to keep up a mother tongue language in the level required for higher studies abroad, as it may not be possible within the Swiss school system. Consider committing time and effort to support this outside of school.
Selectivity and streaming of students
Your child will quickly realize that Swiss school is competitive and students are consistently pushed to do better, even in primary after age 7. The first selection process is early, assessing students at the age of 10/11, not just on their marks, including possible exams, but also on self motivation and conduct. Know your child and what direction he/she wants to go. Another split for pre-university or technical schools and apprenticeships takes place at age 15, before entry into the "college" or "gymnase" where only 20-30% of students are chosen to prepare for the Maturité Federale, which is required for university entrance.
Advice from schooling experts
The earlier the better
If you are considering education in a foreign language start as soon as possible with young children. It is much easier to return to education in your mother tongue than pick up proficiency in a foreign language at a later age when preparation for higher studies is approaching.
Duration of your stay
Allow at least one year to attain comfort in the new language before expecting reasonable academic results. Understand that Swiss schools require students to have competence at their grade level before continuing on so this may require repeating a year from the home country system. Every child is different but preferably allow a minimum of two to three years investment for full benefits in fluency. You want your child to see the results of their effort and not just the struggle. It is best not to consider the public system as a temporary solution (example: 6 months) until international schools open up places. If you can't get the place you need right away it could be preferable to stay in the home school system a little longer until your child can make a single move. If this is a longer term move, it can definitely be worth the effort in one of the most highly regarded public school systems in the world.
Take a broad overview
Swiss schools are not just about practicality and free education but also immersion in a new culture. It is really important to know your child, his/her strengths and weaknesses, and readiness to take this challenge. Try to look at your family, the duration of your stay in Switzerland, and where you see you and your family in the future. With these things in mind you can go forward into your exciting new adventure together.
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