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Education and Schools

Switzerland - Education and Schools

Swiss education is ranked very highly in the worldwide rankings and has one of the highest scores of university attendance. Public schools are free and available to anybody. Even the most prestigious universities are not expensive compared to universities in the US, where people have to save money for years to pay off the tuition fees. Public kindergartens, primary and secondary schools are completely free of charge. Private schools can be expensive, especially boarding schools, like Le Rosey boarding school that attracts candidates from all over the world and offers luxurious accommodation and attractions, such as a winter ski camp. Schools are managed separately by individual cantons, so you can find many differences in education between regions.

Compulsory education starts between the age of four, in some areas, and seven in others. The difference is caused by the implementation of the compulsory kindergarten policy two years before the start of formal school education. Basically, every registered child between the age of six and fifteen needs to be enrolled in elementary school. Almost all of the country has the compulsory kindergarten rule. Elementary school, called Volksschule, usually lasts nine to eleven years. Sometimes there is a possibility of taking an additional year after completing elementary school, to help figure out future possibilities and which school to choose. After elementary school, you have the choice of a Gymnasium for general education, or vocational education and training (VET), or apprenticeships. Vocational trainings are internships with the addition of attending a vocational school for one or two days a week. At the end of this level of education, students will present a thesis and will have to pass a series of examinations. The result will be a diploma called matura or baccalaureate, which is necessary for further education at university or Federal Institutes of Technology.

Schools are divided into local, private and international (public or private). Most Swiss children (80%) go to local schools which are free and have a great reputation outside of the country. Local schools teach in the language of their cantons, so a foreign child might expect some language tests at the very beginning. This is why international schools are popular in Switzerland as they take away the stress of learning a new language and interacting with other children in their mother tongue. This has a big impact on a child’s education. You can find French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Swedish schools in most of the big cities in the country. In private schools, you can expect extended hours, smaller classrooms, more freedom and more extracurricular activities than in the local schools, however, they can be quite expensive. It is also worth noting that you cannot actually choose your local school before enrolment. It will be assigned according to available space and location.

For enrolment in a local primary school, you will need: a birth certificate, health and accident insurance, residence permit and sometimes proof of accommodation (a lease contract can be used). You will also need to follow the dates and requirements specific to a particular school and canton, as they may vary. Usually the enrolment process will close with the beginning of the term, so if you’re planning a relocation, check the necessary information with the school first. Be aware that the process of enrolment can be significantly different in private and international schools.

School hours always include a lunch break. That means, after a few hours of morning classes, usually two hours between 08:00 and 12:00, kids are free until lunch time and are able to go home to eat it. Most of the schools and kindergartens are closed during this time. After the two hours of lunch time, children go back for another two hours of classes. In older classes children might have additional lessons before 08:00 and after 15:00. The school year starts between mid-August and mid-September, has two terms or semesters and around 12 weeks’ holiday a year, including the summer holidays which last for 10 weeks. The exact dates differ depending on the canton the school is located in.

Extracurricular activities are mostly focused on sports. Skiing during the winter season and swimming all year round are the most popular, followed by tennis and gymnastics. Apart from that, each school will have their own options in the program, like music lessons, dancing classes or cooking and knitting. Although extracurricular activities are usually not covered by public schools, you may still find companies and clubs that can provide them for you.

English only speakers will be forced to look for a private school, which is not hard to find, however they might be expensive. While public schools’ tuition is around 500CHF per semester, tuition in a private school would be a few thousand francs.

Compared to the UK or US education systems, Swiss compulsory schooling takes longer. Children go to school one year later than in England and ‘graduate’ from higher-secondary education two years later. Also, things like reading, writing and maths are taught much faster in the UK, so comparing the first years of elementary school, English children learn those things earlier. In the next few years the rate of progress equals out. The real differences, however, are seen in middle and high school. Swiss children receive the full spectrum of education that is supposed to prepare them properly in every subject, which is later tested in the final exam – matura. In England, children are given the choice of what they want to focus on, so they can also develop their artistic side and soft skills. When it comes to personal development, there are some differences too, such as: eating lunch together in the UK compared with eating at home in the middle of the day in Switzerland. Also, switching between class groups depending on the subject compared to one class throughout the whole school day. In both systems you can finds pros and cons and it is really up to personal choice to decide which one is better.

In order to study for a degree in Switzerland, you need to be fluent in the language of your university of choice. The German speaking universities are Universität Basel (BS), Universität Bern (BE), Universität Fribourg (FR), Universität St. Gallen (SG), Universität Zürich (ZH). The French speaking universities are Université de Genève (GE), Université de Lausanne (VD), Université de Neuchâtel (NE). There is also one Italian speaking university: L'Università della Svizzera italiana in Ticino (TI). This doesn’t mean that all classes are non-English, but you will need to be able to speak the main language of instruction. You might also be required to take a language test before you enrol, even if the course is in English.

Useful Resources

Swiss Federation of Private Schools (SFPS)
Hotelgasse 1, Postfach, CH 3000, Bern 7
Tel: +41 (0)31 328 40 50
Email: info@swiss-schools.ch

Swiss Group of International Schools (SGIS)
Email: info@sgischools.ch

Read more about this country

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