If you are moving to Switzerland with your family, this guide to schools in Switzerland will help you pick the right school for your child.
If you are moving to Switzerland with children, then you will be pleased to know that there is an array of schools in Switzerland to consider. Indeed, the country is home to state schools, private schools, bilingual schools, and international schools catering to non-Swiss students. With so many options on offer, however, one of the biggest challenges expats face when relocating to Switzerland is finding the right school for their child. Furthermore, the length of time that you intend to live in Switzerland and your child’s circumstances can determine the type of school you choose.
To help you figure out the best option, this helpful guide covers everything you need to know about schools in Switzerland, including the following:
- The education system in Switzerland
- Primary schools in Switzerland
- Secondary schools in Switzerland
- International schools in Switzerland
- Private schools in Switzerland
- Special educational needs (SEN) schools in Switzerland
- Choosing a school in Switzerland
- Changing schools
- After-school care in Switzerland
- Useful resources
Inter-Community School Zurich
Looking for an international school in Zurich? Why not consider the Inter-Community School Zurich (ICSZ)? Established as Zurich's first international school, ICSZ offers students from 18 months to 18 years an encouraging, globally-minded English-speaking education. If you want the best start for your children in Zurich, enrol them at ICSZ.
The education system in Switzerland
While the Swiss federal government oversees education in Switzerland, each of the 26 individual cantons can create its own education system. As such, each canton has its own education department, educational structure, school calendar, and syllabus. In addition, schools teach in different languages, depending on which ones are most prevalent in that particular canton. Nevertheless, a nationwide initiative – the HarmoS Agreement – ensures harmonization between some aspects of Swiss education. For example, education is compulsory from the ages of about six to 15 years.
Schools in Switzerland can be public or private, but both types offer a high-level education. Private schools also include international schools and those with religious affiliations. Despite the decentralization of schools in Switzerland, education in the country is of a very high level. In fact, it has a stable literacy rate of 99%. This is because education is compulsory in Switzerland, usually up to the age of 15. As a result, there is a 95% enrollment rate, with 954, 811 students being enrolled in compulsory education in 2019, including 262,153 foreign students.
Similarly, at the non-compulsory upper secondary level, there were 362,990 students, of which 82,441 were foreign-born. The quality of education is similarly high. This is because the government allocates a lot of money to education each year. In fact, education is the second-largest expenditure in the government budget, amounting to 16.5%, which is significantly higher than the EU average of 10.2%. Additionally, nearly 95% of Swiss students attend state schools because of the high caliber of education.
Primary schools in Switzerland
In Switzerland, primary schools have different names according to the cantons. As such, in German cantons, they are Primarschule, and in French-speaking cantons, they are école primaire. Depending on where you are, you may also hear scuola primaria (Italian) or scola primara (Romansh).
Some children also attend kindergarten before starting primary school at the age of six. Because of this, in German-speaking cantons, the first stage of education includes kindergarten and two years of primary education for children between the ages of four and eight. The name for this is Grundstufe or Basisstufe.
A similar system also exists in the French-speaking cantons. As such, primary education usually lasts between six and eight years. At this stage, most children attend state schools. However, expats and some wealthy Swiss choose to send their kids to private primary schools.
The curriculum in state primary schools in Switzerland
Essentially, each Swiss canton creates its own school calendar. However, these normally follow similar structures, and school holidays often happen around public holidays. In general, all state schools begin in mid-August or early September and continue to the end of May or early June. In addition, the year is often split into two twelve-week semesters which are book-ended by a shorter winter holiday and long summer vacation. Schools in Switzerland also take a very European approach to lunch, so most students are sent home for two hours in the middle of the day.
In kindergartens and primary schools, students follow an interdisciplinary curriculum. As such, they can develop the tools they need to pursue more intensive education later on. Generally speaking, students will learn two languages, the basics of mathematics and sciences, and certain humanities such as geography and history. Additionally, to ensure a full education, most schools offer music, art, physical education, and ICT.
At the primary level, students receive grade reports twice a year as an assessment of their academic performance. In later primary grades, most cantons use standardized tests to assess their performance and help them decide which secondary education track to follow.
Costs of public primary schools in Switzerland
As public schools in Switzerland are free, parents don’t have to pay any tuition fees. However, depending on the canton, there may be costs associated with attending public primary schools. For example, parents may have to pay for certain materials, school trips, after-school activities, or other things that are not directly related to education. Additionally, each child will have to have health and accident insurance, so you may need to pay for this.
Applying to state primary schools in Switzerland
Enrollment procedures for state primary schools in Switzerland depend on the canton. That said, schools generally begin accepting students from the age of six. As such, if a child turns six before the specific date – usually July 31 – they can begin attending primary school in the autumn. However, the teachers will meet with the parents in the winter to reassess whether the child has the maturity and level of development needed to continue in school.
While primary schools generally accept admissions at any time during the year, it is, of course, best to start at the beginning of a new term. Nevertheless, enrollment is usually a simple process, and you will only have to show the child’s birth certificate, proof of health and accident insurance, and resident’s permit.
Secondary schools in Switzerland
Secondary schools in Switzerland are more complicated than in other countries. This is because there are many options for education at the secondary level. Furthermore, secondary education is split between lower and upper schools.
Students begin attending lower secondary schools at around the age of 11, and this lasts for three or four years and is compulsory. In Switzerland, these schools are called Sekundarschule and teach a general curriculum that is an extension of that at the primary level. However, students can also choose to attend more specialized schools – such as a Gymnasium or Langgymnasium – if they intend to focus on particular subjects. If they choose this, then the schooling will last for six years. Students can also opt to take on an apprenticeship to gain special training in a career while also attending school several days a week.
After this, students can choose whether or not they continue into upper secondary education and if so, how. There are several types of schools at this level, and students have to choose one depending on what type of education they want. Many students choose a particular type of Gymnasium to continue their studies, but these are usually highly focused. For example, there are maths and science schools (Mathematisches und Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium), language schools (Neusprachliches Gymnasium or Altsprachliches Gymnasium), or art schools (Musisches Gymnasium). These usually last for either six and a half or four and a half years. In order to graduate, students must take a finishing exam, called the Matura.
The curriculum in state secondary schools in Switzerland
Like state primary schools, Swiss secondary schools have two semesters that are split up by public holidays and winter and summer school holidays. However, because there are many different types of secondary schools in Switzerland, the curriculum can differ greatly.
At the lower secondary level, students get a general education. Languages, of course, are given priority and most students take at least two. In addition, students study math, natural sciences, geography, history, music, art, physical education, home economics, and other students. As part of their education, they have to take tests at the end of each year to determine whether they can continue to the next grade.
Upper secondary schools in Switzerland offer an array of different curricula. For example, Mathematisches und Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasiums focus on math, science, and two languages. Meanwhile, language gymnasiums prioritize languages but offer some math and science subjects. Conversely, Wirtschaftsgymnasien focus exclusively on business and economics, while Musisches Gymnasiums offer music and art subjects. Upon completion, students receive an Eidgenössische Matura, the federal graduation diploma.
Costs of public secondary schools in Switzerland
As all state schools in Switzerland are free, students don’t usually have to pay tuition fees for public secondary schools. However, they will need to have health insurance, and there may be some costs associated with particular Gymnasiums or apprenticeships.
Applying to state secondary schools in Switzerland
The results of a student’s final primary school exams will determine which state secondary schools they can go to. However, this is just for the lower secondary level. At the upper secondary level, Gymnasiums have three-part entrance exams that students have to pass in order to gain admission. Students have to register for the exam by February 10. As well as passing the exam, students have to send a duplicate report card and submit proof of age. Some Gymnasiums will also require additional documents.
Although the admissions process is relatively straightforward, it is competitive. As a result, many of the top Gymnasiums in Switzerland are oversubscribed, which means that students have to be reallocated to other schools.
International schools in Switzerland
Many expats choose to send their children to international schools in Switzerland. This is because these schools offer a similar style of education to that which they would receive at home. Whether you prefer the British, American, or even Japanese system, schools in Switzerland cover the full range of languages and curricula for international schools. Of course, French and German schools are the easiest to come by. That said, there are many others available, including religious schools that specialize in Christian education.
International schools in Switzerland offer internationally-recognized qualifications in line with their style of education. For example, British schools offer the IGCSE or A-Levels, French schools issue a French baccalauréat, and American schools offer the American High School Diploma and SAT. Of course, the International Baccalaureate Diploma was developed in Switzerland, so many schools offer this, too.
Depending on the school, lessons might be in English, German, French, or another language. For example, at the Japanese School in Zurich, lessons are taught in Japanese alongside German and English lessons. Most international schools offer bilingual programs, but some even have trilingual ones. As such, international schools in Switzerland are a great choice if languages are of particular importance to your child. In bilingual schools, lessons are taught in an equal amount of two different languages, for example, German/English, German/French, Italian/German.
Notably, international schools in Switzerland vary in size, ranging from a few hundred pupils on one site to more than 4,000 spread over several campuses. Some schools in Switzerland take pupils from nursery level up to university entrance. They may be day schools – which teach full days, including lunch – or boarding schools.
General requirements for international schools
When applying to an international school, you will have to provide certain documents. For example, you will have to show your child’s previous school records and residence permit. You will also need to prove that you have health and accident insurance for the child and pay a registration fee.
Costs of international schools in Switzerland
Because international schools are private, they don’t receive government support and you will have to pay for them. Generally, these fees are quite high. For example, tuition fees for a high-school student at the Zurich International School are approximately CHF36,200 a year. However, fees for a primary student at the SIS Swiss International School are about CHF24,000.
In addition, fees can differ greatly depending on whether you choose day or boarding school. For example, day classes can range from CHF9,000 to 30,000/year, while boarding schools can charge between CHF70,000 and CHF90,000/year. As well as tuition fees, you will have to pay for a range of other things, which could include registration fees (up to CHF1,000), meals, field trips, books and materials, and activities. Again, the costs for these differ greatly depending on the school.
Fortunately, many companies that send expats to Switzerland often pay for the children’s schooling. Therefore, this is something that may influence your decision to send your child to an international school in Switzerland.
Private schools in Switzerland
There are many private schools in Switzerland, and these are called Privateschule or écoles privées depending on the canton you live in. However, these are not as popular at state schools and cater mostly to expat children. In fact, only about 5% of Swiss children attend private schools.
There are different types of private schools available and as such, they vary in terms of what they offer when it comes to curriculum and facilities. However, almost all private schools are very prestigious. In fact, Switzerland is home to the world’s most expensive boarding school – Le Rosey – which costs around €100,000 a year to attend.
Private schools usually have smaller class sizes and better facilities than state schools, which is also part of their appeal to expat parents. In addition, they offer a very multicultural environment. In terms of curriculum, private schools can offer a Swiss-style education (the Matura), the popular International Baccalaureate, or a particular foreign national curriculum.
There are several religious schools in Switzerland, although most of these are specifically Catholic. These schools offer a rigorous spiritual education alongside the standard subjects. Furthermore, they are often split into primary or secondary schools. However, students finishing their secondary education at these schools usually receive standard qualifications such as the Swiss Matura.
Similar to many other countries, private Montessori schools are popular in Switzerland, especially at the primary level. This is because they offer a very individual, creative education that allows students to develop a sense of independence and curiosity about the world.
Although they seem similar to Montessori schools, Waldorf schools in Switzerland offer a more holistic education. This is because the curriculum encourages intellectual and artistic activities alongside more traditional disciplines.
Costs of private schools in Switzerland
Private schools in Switzerland are expensive, especially in comparison to state schools. In general, parents can expect to pay the same fees for private schools as they would for international schools.
Special educational needs (SEN) schools in Switzerland
Like with all schools, each canton in Switzerland is responsible for its own style of special needs education (SEN). In accordance with Swiss law, schools have to provide special needs support. As such, many state schools offer special needs classes.
To facilitate this, special needs teachers are on hand to help integrate these students into regular classes and assist with literacy or math problems as well as any behavioral issues. Some schools also provide support for speech and language therapy, as well as psychomotor therapy.
Of course, for students who require further assistance, there are dedicated special needs schools. Each canton has agencies that evaluate and diagnose students – and provide counseling and treatment – and these help decide what type of schooling a special needs student needs.
Choosing a school in Switzerland
The pros and cons of state schools in Switzerland
If you have a younger child, then sending them to the local state school may be a good idea. Firstly, state education in Switzerland is excellent and free. Secondly, your child will pick up the local language(s) quickly and integrate smoothly into Swiss culture. Swiss education is also multilingual, which can offer great cognitive and future career benefits to your children after the initial shock of immersion subsides. Furthermore, there is usually language assistance for foreign students to ease their transition.
Older children, on the other hand, may find it harder to adjust to a new environment where they have to handle lessons in a new language. That said, support is usually available in Swiss schools. Some children may have to repeat a year if their language skills are not at the same level as their academic ability. However, because English is taught as a second or third language in most schools early on, communication with peers is less of a concern. As Swiss secondary education splits into different paths, children also need to have an idea of their future direction quite early on.
Some state schools have a half-day or no school on Wednesdays, as well as long lunch breaks (two hours) where children can opt to go home or be enrolled in a lunch program. However, this is now changing as more state schools are opting for full-day sessions that include lunch-time and after-school care.
The pros and cons of private or international schools in Switzerland
An international school might be the best choice for older children who may be halfway through a particular education system in their home country or might have been at an international school in another country. In these cases, they can simply continue with the same curriculum in Switzerland. Another advantage is that there won’t be a language issue. And if you don’t plan to be in Switzerland long-term, then this will help your child to easily switch to a school in another country.
The environment in these schools will most likely be multicultural, which can be a great opportunity for your child to foster a global perspective. One international school in Geneva, for example, boasts 120 different nationalities. Additionally, obtaining an internationally-recognized education also opens the possibilities for higher education abroad. On the flip side, your child won’t benefit from the same integration into Swiss culture that they would in a state school. As a result, this could cause them to feel like an outsider. There is also often a high turnover of pupils in international schools as parents move on to other jobs or postings abroad. Again, this is something to bear in mind when making your decision.
It can also be hard to get into some international schools. This is because some schools have specific educational requirements and have long waiting lists. Despite this, they are popular because facilities and extracurricular activities are of a higher standard than in state schools. Of course, this is offset by higher school fees and additional costs such as transport, supervision, and uniforms. However, school days are full and include lunch, which is not always the case in state schools.
Things to consider
If you can, it is a good idea to visit the school and meet the director (head) to find out more about what the school can offer your child. In addition to applying the criteria that you normally would in your home country, you might also want to ask about the following:
- What language will the lessons will be taught in and what language and other support will be available?
- Which languages are taught as obligatory or optional?
- What does the curriculum include? Ask to look at a typical timetable to see the academic/non-academic ratio.
- What examinations are set and are they internationally recognized?
- What nationality are other students?
- If it’s a private school, what do the fees include/not include?
- Are there withdrawal conditions?
- How far is the school from your home?
- How long will you be living in Switzerland?
In general, switching public schools in Switzerland is doable. However, if you plan to change schools between different cantons, then you might have a problem. This is because each canton has its own education system, and it can take some adjustment to move between schools. For example, the primary language of instruction may change from French to German. If you are switching between private schools, however, this should be less of a concern.
After-school care in Switzerland
Recognizing the challenges facing working parents, Switzerland is making strides in providing childcare options outside of school hours. Again, these are often handled by the canton, rather than at the federal level.
Some schools have introduced full-day schools – called Tagesschule – where students remain on the premises from around 08:00 to 18:00. These extended hours mean that students can stay on campus for lunch and after school. Some schools also provide snacks and homework support during these times. While not all schools offer this, those that cannot often partner with an independent childcare provider in the area where students can go after school. Parents have to pay for Tagesschule, however, prices vary according to income.
Some cantons also have Hort or Tagesstrukturen. These are simply after-school care centers and don’t offer much more than food and adult supervision. And because these are public facilities, there isn’t always space which means that you may have to put yourself on a waiting list.
In Switzerland, private schools usually have their own after-school programs. For example, the Swiss International School offers after-school supervision from 16:00 to 18:00. Although parents have to pay for this, they can either choose to enroll their child in daily after-school care or by the hour.
Finding a childminder – Tagesmutter or maman du jour – is another popular option for local families in Switzerland. This is because they are relatively low cost, ranging from CHF5 to CHF12 per hour. In addition, these childminders are usually parents of older children who can look after young kids in their homes in the afternoon. Because the system is regulated and minders have to register with local organizations, it is also quite safe. Of course, parents can also opt for au pairs, nannies, and babysitters for after-school care.
- Swiss Education – a website about the Swiss education system
- Swiss Group of International Schools (SGIS) – provides a list of the 54 member schools throughout Switzerland
- State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) – the federal body overseeing education in Switzerland
- Swiss Federation of Private Schools – provides information on the 240 member schools throughout the country
- Eurydice – the European Commission page about Swiss education
- Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) – provides details of the different cantonal education departments in Switzerland