This guide to the Swiss schooling system – from primary to secondary – will help enroll your child into education in Switzerland.
If you’re moving to Switzerland with family, you’ll find an array of schools that cater to international families, including public, private, and international schools. According to Daniel Sarbach, director of the International School Zurich North – who welcomes students from the international community from early years (3-6 years old) to the upper secondary –, Swiss education standards are high. Like Switzerland itself, education has a multilingual focus.
Education in Switzerland is a largely decentralized system. In Switzerland, it’s the 26 cantons – not the federal government – who are responsible for their compulsory education system. “Within a basic overall framework, the cantons decide what they teach, when, and how. However, schooling can vary across the country”, explains Daniel.
International School Zurich North
The International School Zurich North teaches students aged between three years (nursery) and 17 years old (grade 12). The curriculum includes IGCSE and International A-Level and offers students an education in the English language while learning in a friendly, international environment.
Education in Switzerland
Education in Switzerland is relatively high. Switzerland ranks ninth out of 65 countries and economies in the OECD/PISA 2012 survey of educational standards amongst 15-year-olds.
The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) is the federal body overseeing education in Switzerland. Each of the 26 cantons has primary responsibility for their education and, in fact, run their own education systems.
Each canton has its own education department, school calendar, education structure, methods of teaching, and curricula. However, there are agreements in place to coordinate the latter across the country. “This can make moving a child from a school in one canton to one in another quite difficult”, advises Daniel. Responsibility for post-compulsory education is shared between the Swiss Confederation and the cantons.
Local and international schools in Switzerland
Most students in Switzerland attend local schools, which are of high standard and free. “However, foreign families may consider an international school to ease their child’s transition by continuing education in a familiar language,” says Daniel. “Your child’s age and length of time in Switzerland are some factors to consider.” For even more information on how to choose a school in Switzerland, see Expatica’s guide to Swiss schools.
Compulsory Swiss education
Education is compulsory for all children in Switzerland, even those who do not have legal residency status. Even though the cantons set the rules regarding education, compulsory education lasts for 9–11 years. Some children start compulsory education when they are four years old and others at six years until about 15 years old. You can enquire about your canton’s specific education requirements at one of the cantonal education departments.
Most students learn at a state school in the local area. Here, pupils have a variety of abilities and come from a range of different backgrounds including, sometimes, linguistic backgrounds. Only about 5% of Swiss children go to a private school.
State education is free of charge, but schools may ask for payments for school supplies, books, and school trips.
There are no school uniforms in Switzerland.
The school year in Switzerland
In Switzerland, the school year starts between mid-August and mid-September. It has two terms or semesters and around 12 weeks of holiday per year. The exact dates are set by the canton and can vary; you can find contact details for the education department in your canton here.
The school week in Switzerland
Cantons set their own timetables. Most cantons and municipalities have core times with children usually going to school in the morning from around 8.30am until 11.30am and then from 13.30pm until 16.00pm. Primary school days are shorter than secondary school days.
At some schools, children go home for lunch, “which can be awkward for working parents,” says Daniel. “Others offer parents supervised lunch hours as well as after school childcare for a fee.”
Some primary schools are closed one day or one afternoon in the week (for example, Wednesday).
The structure of the Swiss education system
The basic structure of the Swiss education system is as follows:
- primary education – kindergarten or a first learning cycle;
- lower secondary education;
- upper secondary level education – vocational education and training (VET), baccalaureate schools and upper-secondary specialized schools;
- tertiary level education – professional training, university.
Primary education in Switzerland
In Switzerland, primary education usually consists of pre-school (kindergarten) and primary school. Primary level, including two years of kindergarten or a first learning cycle, can last for eight years. Although most children attend kindergarten for two years, in some cantons it isn’t compulsory.
In German-speaking cantons, some municipalities combine kindergarten and the first two years of primary school into the first learning cycle called Grundstufe or Basisstufe. Children aged four to eight years are in the same class.
French-speaking cantons differ. Here, two kindergarten years are included in a four-year ‘cycle 1’ or cycle primaire 1.
The Italian-speaking canton Ticino also differs. There, it’s optional for children to go to kindergarten from the age of three and then compulsory from the age of four, for two years.
Contact the education department in your own canton to confirm what happens in your region.
Pre-school (Vorschulstuf / école enfantine / Scuola dell’infanzia)
Even where pre-school is not compulsory, most children attend kindergarten before primary school. Daniel explains: “The aim is to stimulate the development and social skills of the children mainly through play-based learning – lots of music, crafts and games – and in the last year, the rudiments of reading, writing, and mathematics.” He adds that “pre-schools are a great way for expat children to pick up a new language and start integrating with Swiss culture.” For more information, see the Expatica’s guide to childcare in Switzerland.
Primary school (Schule / école primaire / scuola primaria o elementare)
Around the age of six, children go to primary school. Depending on the canton, primary school lasts between four and six years. At this level, children are not divided into achievement groups.
The children learn in the language of the region (German, French, Italian, or Romansh). Subjects include the first language, a second national language, English, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, humanities (e.g., geography, history, ethics, religion), music, art, physical education, and health.
Pupil assessment varies from canton to canton. Generally, pupils receive either an ungraded or graded school report twice a year at the end of each term. Grades are from one to six with six being the best grade and one being insufficient. There can also be end-of-year tests as well.
Depending on a pupil’s performance, they may promote to the next level, receive extra support, or repeat a year. There is no stigma with repeating a year, however.
Lower secondary education in Switzerland
Children usually move onto lower secondary level at the age of 11 or 12 at a middle school called either a Gymnasium or Kantonsschule. Lower secondary education usually lasts for three years except in Italian-speaking Ticino, when it lasts for four years. How well the child does at primary level determines the level the child goes to in the lower secondary level.
Topics taught at the lower secondary level are usually: the language of the school, a second national language (and an optional third), English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, geography, history, civic education, music, art and design, physical education and health, home economics, career guidance, and vocational preparation.
In most cantons, students get a graded report twice a year. There is also usually a meeting with pupils and parents to discuss the student’s performance, which will include behavior and attitude towards learning. There may also be end-of-year tests as well.
Pupils who have overall average grades can progress to the next year of school. Those who do not may progress to the next year at a lower grade or have to repeat a year.
After three years (four in Ticino) lower secondary and compulsory education ends in Switzerland. There is no national exam or school leaving certificate or diploma in Switzerland although some cantons do set a final exam at the end of lower secondary education and some award school-leaving certificates.
Upper secondary education in Switzerland
After nine years of compulsory education, adolescents continue to the upper secondary level, which is split into vocational and general education. Upper secondary education in Switzerland is optional although more than 90 percent of Swiss students do decide to continue their education around the age of 15/16. Upper secondary school is regulated jointly by the Confederation and the cantons so there are variations in organization and curricula across the country.
Cantonal qualifications are valid across Switzerland. The three types of upper secondary education include:
- Vocational education and training (VET) schools
- Baccalaureate schools
- Upper secondary specialized schools
Vocational education and training (VET) schools
Most students in Switzerland go onto vocational education and training (VET) programs after lower secondary education. Basic vocational education lasts between two and four years and provides practical and technical training. Education takes place in vocational schools, companies that provide apprenticeships, and cross-company courses.
These dual-track programs combine classroom lessons at a VET school with an apprenticeship at a training company. There are VET programs for around 230 different professions. VET programs can lead to a Federal VET certificate, a Federal VET diploma, or the Federal vocational baccalaureate (Berufsmaturität /maturité professionelle) which allows admission to universities of applied science.
About a third of Swiss students go onto baccalaureate school, which provide a general education in preparation for admission to university. Pupils usually enroll at baccalaureate schools in the last year of lower secondary education. Baccalaureate programs usually last for four years but three years in some cantons and six years in others. “Admission may be based on students’ grades, teachers’ recommendations and/or an entrance exam”, advises Daniel.
A baccalaureate program consists of core subjects, a main specialism, and a secondary specialism plus a baccalaureate essay. Core subjects are: first national language, second national language and a third language (a third national language, English, Latin or Greek), mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and visual arts/music. All students take an introductory course in economics and law, while philosophy is optional. The specialisms are available from lists of subjects that each canton determines. Students receive a grade at the end of term and/or year; how well students do determines whether they progress to the next year or not.
At the end of the baccalaureate program, students have exams in at least five subjects: first language, a second national language, mathematics, the main specialism, and one further subject. They also have to present a baccalaureate essay.
Students who pass earn the baccalaureate certificate (Matura / Maturité). They can then enroll at cantonal universities, institutes of technology, and teacher training universities.
Upper secondary specialized schools
Around 5 percent of students go onto upper secondary specialized schools. They provide a school-based general education and preparation for professional education and training (PET) in specific occupations – like healthcare, social work, and education – at PET colleges and universities of applied sciences. There are upper secondary specialized schools in 22 cantons, both canton and privately run. Admission criteria varies but may include an entrance exam or interview.
Students study core subjects and additional subjects related to the specific occupation. They receive a grade at the end of term and/or year; satisfactory grades determine whether a student progresses to the next year or not. The three-year specialized school program ends with a final exam (written and/or oral) in at least six subjects, at least one of which must be related to the specific occupation.
Successful candidates earn the upper-secondary specialized school certificate and can go onto further study at PET colleges.
Students who take the additional one-year specialized baccalaureate course (not available in all cantons) usually have to complete traineeships or practical experience in their particular field as well as course work. Successful candidates earn the specialized baccalaureate (Fachmaturität/maturité spécialisée). This allows admission to universities of applied science and pre-school and primary teacher courses at teacher training universities.
Universities in Switzerland
Higher education includes technical and vocational schools, as well as universities, spread across cantons such as Basel, Berne, Fribourg, Geneva, Neuchatel, Lausanne, Lugano, Zurich, Lucerne, and St Gallen.
Find out how to apply to a program at a Swiss university with Expatica’s guide to studying in Switzerland.
Language support in Swiss education
In Switzerland, lessons are in the language of the region: German, French, Italian, or Romansh. From early on, students also learn one of the other official Swiss languages, as well as English.
“During enrolment at a school, your child’s ability in the local national language will be assessed,” says Daniel. “Some schools offer induction courses or intensive language courses to help students reach the standard required for them to join regular classes, or will receive language lessons alongside normal classes.” He adds that sometimes, the school might recommend that a pupil repeat a year in order to catch up.
Special needs schools in Switzerland
Children and young people with special educational needs in Switzerland have a right to schooling and support from specialists from birth up to their 20th birthday. Children receive assessments by specialist agencies within the canton and may attend a mainstream school with support, or a special needs school. Read Expatica’s guide to special needs schooling in Switzerland, or contact your canton’s education department.
Homeschooling in Switzerland
Homeschooling is not common in Switzerland. Laws regarding it vary from canton to canton – in some cantons it’s possible, in others it’s not. If your canton allows homeschooling, you’ll have to register annually/notify the education department and work within their guidelines. For more information, contact your canton’s education department and the Home School Association of Switzerland.
For more information
- State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI): the federal body overseeing education in Switzerland.
- Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK): the organization which coordinates the work of the cantons at national level.
- List of cantonal education departments
- Home School Association of Switzerland
- Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training SFIVET
- Swiss Institute for Special Educational Needs