Switzerland has a largely decentralised education system. Each canton has its own independent education department. The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Education is a united body of Swiss cantons aimed at standardising the system.
Education is divided into four sections: pre-school or kindergarten, primary, secondary, and tertiary or higher education. In the majority of cantons, English is taught beginning at the primary school level. Although private schools exist, the majority of students attend state-run schools. School education in Switzerland is compulsory until the age of 16.
Kindergarten (école enfantine/scuola dell'infanzia) attendance is mostly voluntary, although the majority of children attend preschool for at least one year. Children are not divided into achievement groups at this level. Public kindergarten attendance is free of charge, with local government providing financial support.
Primary school (Primarschule / ecole primaire / scuola primaria orelementare) attendance is obligatory and free of charge for all children. The minimum age is six years in all cantons except Obwalden, where it is 5 years and 3 months. Primary school lasts six years in 20 of the cantons and four or five years in the other cantons. At this level, children are not divided into achievement groups. Cantons are responsible for determining the curricula of the primary schools. All of the cantons teach one national language (German, French, Italian, or Romansh) and two foreign languages, in addition to maths, history, geography, and science. In some cantons, a student’s sixth-grade work is important as it determines the track they will follow for the rest of their education in Switzerland. Pupils are separated into groups based on whether they speak French, German or Italian as their first language.
Lower secondary school
Pupils between 12 and 16 years of age attend lower secondary schools. In most cantons, this level is divided according to performance and career intentions: schools with basic courses promote practical abilities and prepare students for apprenticeships, while schools with expanded courses prepare students for general education schools or more demanding apprenticeships.
Upper secondary school
After nine years of compulsory education, adolescents continue to the upper secondary level, which is split into vocational and general education. Basic vocational education lasts between two and four years and provides practical and technical training. Education takes place at companies that provides apprenticeships, in vocational schools and in cross-company courses. General education students attend Matura schools and specialised middle schools (Fachmittelschulen). Matura schools’ curricula include languages, humanities, economics, maths, science, visual arts, music, and sport. Specialised middle schools prepare pupils for higher vocational education in healthcare, social service, teaching, communication and information, and the arts.
Higher education includes technical and vocational schools as well as universities. There are twelve universities in Switzerland: ten run by the cantons and two, the Federal Institutes of Technology, managed by the confederation of Zurich and Lausanne. Other universities are located in Basel, Berne, Fribourg, Geneva, Neuchatel, Lausanne, Lugano, Zurich, Lucerne, and St Gallen. To be accepted into a bachelor’s programme at a Swiss university, students must have a foreign certificate recognised by the university as equivalent to a Swiss certificate, such as the International Baccalaureate diploma (IB), A levels (GCE) or equivalent.
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