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Education in Switzerland

A Comprehensive Guide About the Education System and International Schools

The standard of education and international schools within Switzerland is considerably high, even when compared to the rest of Europe. When it comes to public and private schools, the educational quality is so similar that only 5% of Swiss nationals choose private education.

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When looking for schools for your kids, it is easy to find the best schools and higher education institutions in Switzerland because education as a whole is of such a high standard across the country. At a federal level, education is overseen by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). However, the majority of the schooling structure and decisions is left both to the individual cantons and the municipalities.

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How is the Education System in Switzerland?

The education system in Switzerland is not only one of the best in Europe, but it is considered one of the top systems in the world. The small country continually ranks on annual Top 10 lists comparing education across the globe.

Education Facts in Switzerland

  • Homeschooling is not common in Switzerland, and some cantons even outlaw it. If you plan to homeschool your child, be sure to check your individual canton laws.
  • Cantons encourage parental participation throughout primary and secondary school. Part of this participation includes supporting foreign families. Do not be surprised if Swiss nationals from your child’s school reach out to you. 

What is the Education Like in Switzerland?

Much like its healthcare system, education in Switzerland is decentralized. Education standards are set by each individual canton, and there are slight differences depending on if the canton is predominantly German, Italian, or French. That is why, if you move from one canton to another, the switch will require some adjustment on the student’s part. Note that schools can vary widely when it comes to school calendar, education structure, teaching methods, and curriculum. However, no matter where you live in Switzerland, the quality of education here is high.

Overall, the educational approach throughout the school system as a whole is focused on nurturing a child’s inherent abilities. In primary school, students are schooled together. After primary school, students are separated according to their academic abilities and interests. Most schools and cantons implement placement exams to do so.

What are the School Systems Like in Switzerland?

Requirements for compulsory schooling rests with each canton, and each municipality is responsible for organizing their own schools. This allows schools to tailor their school programs to meet the local needs of their community.

Compulsory education in Switzerland lasts for nine to eleven years depending on the canton. In most cantons, children must begin primary school at age six. Primary school lasts eight years; however, only six of them are mandatory. Mandatory secondary education lasts for three years, but in some cantons it is four.

Cantons create their own school calendar, but the school year in Switzerland typically starts mid-August or September and ends in May or June. Schools typically follow twelve-week semester systems with two semesters per school year.

School Ages in Switzerland

Although school ages vary by canton and municipality, these are the general ages of students and their corresponding school years:

Kindergarten 4–6 years old
Primary School 6–12 years old
Lower Secondary 12–15 years old
Upper Secondary 15–18 years old

 

Grading System in Switzerland

Grades in Switzerland are typically on a six-point scale with six being the highest possible grade.

6 Excellent
5.5 Very good
5 Good
4.5 Satisfactory
4 Sufficient
3.5 Insufficient
3 Poor
2.5–1 Very poor

 

School Hours

Public school costs are free and are funded by high tax rates. Your child should be allowed to enroll at any point during the school year, but rules may vary by canton. The most common documents you will need to enroll your child are:

  • child’s birth certificate
  • proof of health and accident insurance
  • resident permit

Contact InterNations GO! if you would like to work with an advisor that can help you find a the perfect school for your children and assist you with the application process.

Main Differences Between Public and Private Schools

The education standards between public and private schools are so similar that most Swiss nationals enroll their children in public schools. However, there, the classes are taught in the dominate language of the canton (German, French, Italian, or Romansh). So, if your child needs instruction in English or a different language, you should look into private or international schools.

Other differences include the school cost: public schools are free, whereas private schools are expensive to attend: 9,000—30,000 CHF (9,090—30,300 USD) for day classes; 70,000—90,000 CHF (70,700—90,900 USD) for boarding school. Additionally, private schools also have smaller class sizes, while the average public-school class has around 20 students.

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Daycare and Kindergarten

There are plenty of daycare and kindergarten options for families living in Switzerland. Keep in mind that the names of schools, such as “daycare” and “kindergarten,” may change depending on the dominant language of the canton. 

Daycare

Daycares in Switzerland are referred to as crèches in French-speaking cantons and Krippe or KiTa in German ones. Daycares accept children before they turn one-year-old and all the way up until when they can begin kindergarten. These schools are mostly used by parents who need to go to work every day.

Fees for daycares are notoriously high in Switzerland. Depending on where you live, prices range around 60­–150 CHF (60–150 USD) per day. In the bigger cities, the prices will be even higher. It is not uncommon for Swiss families to spend nearly 30% of their income on childcare options. For families who cannot afford these prices, some cantonal authorities provide subsidized options for as low as 10 CHF (10 USD) per day. Some schools may even give discounts for siblings.

To enroll your child, parents should approach crèches in person. Be aware that there are usually waiting lists. Crèches can be in an official building or run from a designated crèches worker’s home.

Nursery (Pre-school)

Nursery can be called pre-school as it comes before the compulsory school age. Children can attend nursery as young as four years of age, although some cantons may require your child be four years and nine months. Parents should apply in writing.

Schools operate between 08:30–12:00, break for lunch, and return from 13:00–15:30. Nursery school programs are set by each canton, but curricula typically focus on cognitive and social development. At this age, the child’s performance is rarely assessed and there are no selection criteria.

Is Nursery (Pre-school) Mandatory?

Most Swiss cantons offer two years of preschool, but do not require children to attend. However, this varies by region and it is best to check with your specific cantonal authorities to be sure. In general, the majority of Swiss children attend at least one year of preschool, and over half attend two.

Kindergarten

The difference between kindergarten and pre-school is minimal when it comes to curricula or school age. The main distinction is that kindergarten is mandatory in some cantons as a part of primary education, while in others it is not. Requirements for how long a child must attend kindergarten also vary by canton, as some German-speaking cantons mandate a child enrolls in two years of kindergarten, but others require just one. Be sure to check your new home’s educational department before you move.

Feeling confused? Because Switzerland’s education system varies so greatly depending on canton and municipality, expats should contact the experts at InterNations GO! to help them decipher what the schooling options are for their young children.

Primary and Secondary Schools

Some of the best primary and secondary schools in Switzerland are public schools. Nearly 95% of Swiss residents choose to send their children to public schools because they are free, and the education students receive is of extremely high caliber.

Primary School

Primary (or elementary) school begins with kindergarten and lasts for about seven­ to eight years depending on your canton. Kids are schooled together and learn general subject like math, writing, and literature.

Upon graduation, students take an exam that determines their track for secondary education. The exam varies from canton to canton. Many parents opt for tutors or after-school courses to prepare for the exam because much of the test material is not covered in primary school.

Secondary School

There are several factors that determine your child’s options for secondary school (also called high school). The first, and probably most important (and probably most predictable), is your canton. In Zurich, for example, a student has the option to enroll in standard secondary school or they can opt for langgymnasium. The standard secondary school will last three to four years and students can choose a learning specialty to focus on. Langgymnasium is for six years and prepares students for specialized careers.

Throughout the country, secondary school is usually divided between upper and lower secondary. Again, students have many options when it comes to upper secondary because much of it depends on the canton as well as the student’s personal interests and abilities. Students can choose between a more academically minded track or a vocational track, which usually entails an apprenticeship. Students are schooled in the dominate language of the canton and they learn two foreign languages as well, most commonly, the languages of the other cantons.

In upper secondary, students can also choose to attend a matura school. There are six types of matura schools that focus on different curricula:

  • Math and Science (Matematisches und Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium)
  • Modern languages (Neusprachliches Gymnasium)
  • Classical languages (Altsprachliches Gymnasium)
  • Secondary School of Economics (Wirtschaftsgymnasium)
  • Secondary Music and Art school (Musisches Gymnasium)
  • Secondary School of Sports (Sportgymnasium)

Like Zurich’s langgymnasium, these schools will require students pass an entrance exam. Like the exam at the end of primary school, this exam has a reputation for being extremely tough with material that is not often taught in school. If I child gets into one of these schools, they should be prepared to work hard as the schools have high academic standards in order to remain enrolled.

At the end of the schooling there will be a finishing exam, the matura, that all students are required to pass to graduate. The exam will vary by canton, but on average students can expect to be tested on the following:

  • basic subjects (math, various sciences, history, geography, arts)
  • major subject depending on their concentration
  • essay question
  • first national language (depending on canton)
  • second national language
  • third national language (typically either English, Latin, or Greek)

For the languages, students will also be tested on the literature of that language.

International Schools

Switzerland is known for some of the best international schools in Europe. Although most of the schools have reputations for strict discipline, they are also known for their extremely high educational standards. 

Schools in Switzerland for International Students

Whether you prefer a British school, American school, or even a Japanese education, the schools in Switzerland cover a large variety of languages and curricula for international students. German schools are the easiest to come by as are French schools, since French and German are two of the official languages of the country. You will find the greatest option for these schools in the French and German cantons. Religious schools are also possible such as Christian or Catholic schools.

Most international schools promote a bilingual program, but some even have trilingual ones. If language learning is of particular importance to your child, this is worth looking into. Teaching methods from across the globe can also be found if you plan on only staying in Switzerland for a short while.

International School Requirements and Admission

Switzerland has nearly 50 international schools spread throughout the country for you to choose from. Requirements vary and you can expect most to have waiting lists. While it is possible to enroll your student mid-year, it is more common to start at the beginning of the school year.

General requirements for international schools:
  • previous school records
  • residence permit
  • health and accident insurance

International school tuition fees average around 30,000–40,000 CHF (30,300—40,400 USD) per year. Fees may vary depending on the school and your child’s age.

Some of Switzerland’s top international schools include:
  • TASIS The American School in Switzerland
  • Surval Montreux
  • Le Régent College
  • Institut auf dem Rosenberg

Higher Education

In addition to being home to some of the top international schools in Europe, expats interested in higher education abroad will be happy to find some of the top universities in Switzerland as well. With expats making up nearly 30% of the overall Swiss population, many of these universities are perfectly suited for international students.

Best Universities for International Students in Switzerland

The most international university in Switzerland is Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI). Its student body is over 60% international with over 100 countries represented. Bachelor’s degrees are typically taught in the dominating language of the canton, although it is possible to find some bilingual programs. Masters programs are largely taught in English.

Some of the best universities for international students in Switzerland include:
  • University of Geneva
  • University of Bern
  • University of Basel
  • University of Zurich
  • University of Lausanne

How Much Does It Cost to Study in Switzerland for International Students

On average, international students will pay the same university tuition amount as native Swiss students. Universities where international students pay more, however, are the universities in Bern, Fribourg, Lucerne, Neuchâtel, St Gallen, Zurich and Lugano.

When compared to other European countries and the US, Swiss university fees are reasonable. Average undergrad university tuition fees in Switzerland range between 850–1,310 CHF (860–1,320 USD) per year. A Masters will be closer to 1,600 CHF (1,610 USD).

However, where students may struggle, is in the same area everyone in Switzerland struggles: everyday living expenses. Those can easily add up to over 15,000 CHF (15,130 USD) extra.

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Language Schools

Because Switzerland has so many official languages, language schools are rife in the small country. Whether you want to learn French, German, Italian, or English, you are sure to find the right course for you no matter where you live. It is best to first become proficient in the dominant language of your canton as this will be the easiest way to acclimate to the local culture. Most business interactions in Switzerland are in English, but you may find that coworkers will want to speak in the canton’s primary language. Learning a few key words and phrases in the language of a neighboring canton will go a long way as well. 

Language School Fees

Language school fees vary, but generally average around a couple hundred Swiss francs.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a complete set of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Updated on: September 20, 2019
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