By Mirjam Wilburg, 2020

The Swiss Educational System

In Switzerland, each canton has its own educational system, which makes it very difficult to make statements that are generally true for the whole country. The following web pages provide very good overviews of the Swiss education system:

A Brief Overview of Switzerland’s Educational System

The Swiss educational system is divided into four stages:

  • 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.

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 departments in your canton on the website of; edk.ch (swiss education system)

State education is free of charge but you may be asked to pay for school supplies, books, and school trips.

Pre-school

Two years of pre-school, as of four years of age, are compulsory after the harmonization of compulsory education, known as HarmoS.

Compulsory Schooling

Compulsory schooling today begins at age 6 and continues for nine school years. Primary schools today span grades 1-6. This is followed by the lower secondary level (grades 7-9) where pupils receive instruction in performance-based groups, either in all subjects or in some subjects. To determine which performance-based level suits the student best, placement tests are being conducted at the end of 6th grade. The language of instruction is German, French, Italian or Romansh, depending on the language region. Traditionally, language learning has an important role in Switzerland. All students learn at least two other languages during their compulsory schooling. This is generally English and one of the other languages spoken in Switzerland.

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.

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; bildungzuhause.ch.

Post-compulsory Education

At the age of 16, students who wish to continue their education move into Secondary II, which generally lasts 3-4 years. Secondary II either provides vocational training for direct entry into the labor market or prepares students with a Matura/baccalaureate for tertiary education. For details, please see the education chart referred to at the beginning of this article.

The following are distinct features of the Swiss education system:

  • Permeability: There are many ways to enter or transfer to a training program or school or to attend a catch up training program.
  • There is open access to the various types of education: Anyone who has the necessary qualifications can generally attend the course of his/her choice; the university attended can also be freely selected.
  • Vocational education and training is subject to some restrictions due to the ceilings on student numbers for certain vocational areas. Access to medical schools is also limited to a certain extent.
  • Diplomas are recognized throughout Switzerland, thus facilitating national and international mobility.

Apprenticeship Versus Gymnasium (High School)

The apprenticeship system in Switzerland has been developed into a very sophisticated training system, where young adults get a well-rounded education and a high level of expertise in their particular field of training. It is a combination of school (1-3 days per week) and practical education in a company. Children with strong academic achievements can even prepare for Berufsmatura, the equivalent to the national exam needed to attend university.

About 30% of young Swiss continue their secondary education at the type of school known in German as Gymnasium and in French as gymnase, which offers a general education, leading to the school leaving certificate, or Matura (maturité in French). This qualifies them to go to university or to one of the two Federal Polytechnics.

In-country Resources Available to Families

Current curriculums, schoolbooks and teacher’s aids can be ordered from schulverlag.ch. They deliver to the ends of the earth! There is no Swiss correspondence school for elementary school children. Some Swiss abroad are using the German correspondence schools instead.

Anything concerning post-compulsory school (determining the right track for your child, requirements, options etc.) can be found here; berufsberatung.ch.

Anything about Swiss universities, academic programs, finances etc. is compiled on the website of the swissuniversities.ch.

All the websites mentioned are very complete and will also give you links to related sites. This will help you find all the information you need.

Cultural Differences for Teachers to Know About

Swiss children may appear to be shy compared to American children. In Swiss culture, the teacher is a respected person; you don’t treat him or her like family or friends. Therefore it might take the children a little bit longer to build an appropriate relationship to their English-speaking teacher. Also, in the German language, you do not use the “you-form” to address your teacher, but a form of respect that is used to address adults and people you don’t know on a personal level. It is important for children to learn that form before they enter school in Switzerland.

Challenges/Recommendations for MKs Returning to Switzerland

Plan a 6-month to a year furlough. Swiss schools are well organized and plan quite a bit in advance. Therefore it would be best to get in contact with the school your children will attend about half a year before furlough time. It’s best to plan for a half year or even a one-year furlough, so the children have a chance to really get into the new system, especially if they attend school in a different language in the host country. In Switzerland, children have to attend the school in the town/village/city where their parents live. Principals and even classroom teachers are very willing to help, so the best thing is to contact them and discuss with them the specific situation of your children.

The number one challenge will be languages! Besides having to be fluent in either French or German as the primary language of instruction, students need to know the other national language quite well in order to be able to keep up with the curriculum. A good knowledge of English is also required. Usually the lack of knowledge of one of these three languages is the reason children have to repeat grades they have already done in their host country.

Swiss universities do not accept an American High School Diploma as a prerequisite for entering university, because the level of the national exam, Matura, is quite a bit higher. In the Swiss school system, all the general studies are to be finished before taking the national exam. Therefore, the level of the Matura is about equivalent to the first 2 years of a university education in America. Swiss universities are familiar with the Advanced Placement (AP) system though and will accept an American High School Diploma plus a minimum of 5 completed AP Exams. Depending on your field of study, different AP exams might be required, so this is something one wants to look into even before starting High School abroad. ETH, the federal technical university with campuses in Zürich and Lausanne is an exception and requires all people without Matura to do an entrance exam, including language exams.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.