This guide to the Swiss schooling system – from primary to secondary – will help enrol 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 local Swiss schools, private schools, bilingual schools, 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, and like Switzerland itself, education has a multilingual focus.
Education in Switzerland is a largely decentralised 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 is taught, when and how, so 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 is currently ranked 9 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 in Switzerland but each of the 26 individual cantons has primary responsibility for their education and in effect run their own education systems.
Each canton has its own education department and its own school calendar, education structure, methods of teaching and curricula, although there are agreements in place to coordinate the latter across the country. “Bear in mind that 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 (federal government) 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 and curriculum,” says Daniel. “Your child’s age and length of time in Switzerland are just some factors to consider.” For more information on how to choose a school in Switzerland, see Expatica’s guide to Swiss schools: local, private, bilingual and international schools.
Compulsory Swiss education
Education is compulsory for all children and young people in Switzerland even those who do not have a legal residency status. Even though the rules regarding education are set by individual cantons, generally speaking, compulsory education lasts for 9–11 years with some children starting 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 are educated at a state school in the local area, so pupils are mixed ability and come from a range of different backgrounds including, sometimes, linguistic backgrounds. Only about 5 percent of Swiss children go to a private school.
State education is free of charge but you may be asked to pay for school supplies, books, and school trips.
There are no school uniforms in Switzerland.
For more information about different types of schooling in Switzerland, see Expatica’s guide to Swiss schools: local, private, bilingual and international schools.
The school year in Switzerland
In Switzerland the school year starts between mid-August and mid-September, has two terms or semesters and around 12 weeks holiday a 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 although 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 the children have to go home for lunch, “which can be awkward for working parents” says Daniel, “but others offer parents supervised lunch hours and 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 specialised schools;
- tertiary level education – professional training, university.
Primary education 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 do attend kindergarten for two years, in some cantons they are not obliged to attend or do so only for one year.
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 and children aged four to eight years are in the same class.
In French speaking cantons, two kindergarten years are included in a four-year ‘cycle 1’ or cycle primaire 1.
In the Italian-speaking canton Ticino, 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 will be taught in the language of the region (German, French, Italian, or Romansh). Subjects include the first language, a second national language and English, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences and humanities (eg. geography, history, ethics, and religion), music art and design, physical education and health.
Pupil assessment varies from canton to canton but 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 be end-of-year tests as well.
Depending on how well pupils have done in the year, they may be promoted to the next level, given extra support or have to repeat a year, for which there is no stigma attached.
Lower secondary education in Switzerland
Children generally move onto lower secondary level at the age of 11/12 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 has done at primary level determines which level the child is assigned in the lower secondary level.
Topics taught at lower secondary level are usually: the language of the school/region, a second national language (and an optional third) and English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, geography, history, civic education, music, art and design (visual arts, textile design, technical design), physical education and health, home economics, career guidance and vocational preparation.
In most cantons, students get a graded report (six = best grade, four = sufficient, below four = insufficient) twice a year. There is also usually a meeting with pupils and parents to discuss the student’s performance, which will include behaviour 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 organisation and curricula across the country.
Qualifications awarded by cantons are recognised across Switzerland. The three types of upper secondary education include:
- Vocational education and training (VET) schools
- Baccalaureate schools
- Upper secondary specialised schools
Vocational education and training (VET) schools
Most students in Switzerland go onto vocational education and training (VET) programmes 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 provides apprenticeships, and cross-company courses.
These dual-track programmes combine classroom lessons at a VET school with an apprenticeship at a training company. There are VET programmes for around 230 different professions. VET programmes 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 enrol at baccalaureate schools in the last year of lower secondary education. Baccalaureate programmes 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 programme 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 chosen from lists of subjects determined by each canton. Students are graded at the end of term and/or year (six = best grade, four = sufficient, below four = insufficient); how well students do determines whether they progress to the next year or not.
At the end of the baccalaureate programme students are examined (written and/or oral) 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 are awarded the baccalaureate certificate (Matura / Maturité) and can enrol at cantonal universities, institute of technologies and teacher training universities.
Upper secondary specialised schools
Around 5 percent of students go onto upper secondary specialised 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 specialised 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 are graded at the end of term and/or year (six = best grade, four = sufficient, below four = insufficient); satisfactory grades determine whether a student progresses to the next year or not. The three-year specialised school programme 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 candidate are awarded the upper-secondary specialised school certificate and can go onto further study at PET colleges.
Students who take the additional one-year specialised 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 are awarded the specialised baccalaureate (Fachmaturität/maturité spécialisée) which 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 be accepted into a programme at a Swiss university with Expatica’s guide to studying in Switzerland.
Language support in Swiss education
In Switzerland, lessons are taught 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 are assessed 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.
Home schooling in Switzerland
Home schooling is not common in Switzerland and the laws regarding it vary from canton to canton – in some cantons it’s allowed, in others it’s illegal. If your canton allows home schooling, 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 in Switzerland.
- Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK): the organisation 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