What’s different about going to school in Switzerland?
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What’s different about going to school in Switzerland?

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Moving to Switzerland with school aged children? The Swiss school system is excellent in both public and private schools. But it can be daunting to choose the right school and get accustomed with all the different ways the Swiss system is different from the one in your country. Let’s take a quick look at the most significant differences and at what makes the Swiss educational system so successful.

If you have questions about the Swiss education system or need help choosing the best school for your children, reach out to one of our expert education consultants.

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What you’ll love about the Swiss school system

The Swiss system can be very different to how British and American parents perceive early childhood education. Children are introduced to reading, writing and arithmetic much later here.

Many British and American parents are not familiar with the system, and might become concerned about the educational development of their child. The secret to success is working out how the teacher expects your child to behave and what standards of work are expected. This can vary greatly between teachers, schools, and regions.

However, the Swiss model is as successful as it gets:

  • Switzerland has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world: 8.16% in 2020, compared with Spain – 39.9% in January 2021, Italy 29,7% in January 2021, UK – 11.6% in 2020, US – 8.94% in 2020 and Germany – 6.2% in January 2021.

  • The Swiss public school offers exquisite quality education, and it is free.

  • Swiss education is politically unbiased and secular.

  • Diversity by design - no socio-economic distinctions are made, all ethnicities are integrated, and a broad spectrum of learning abilities are addressed in the same class.

  • Your child will have around fourteen weeks of school holidays every year. These are spread over the whole year: autumn (two weeks), winter (two weeks over Christmas and New Year), carnival/ski holidays (two weeks), spring (two weeks over Easter) and summer (six weeks). The school year starts in August – mid-August at the latest.

  • You don’t have to worry about learning the language – there are numerous options for foreigners in public schools. Free language support is the norm in public schools, especially in German-speaking cantons – there are DAZ classes (Deutsch als Zweitsprache) available for everyone.

You can also have a look at this webinar we've recorded with a top Packimpex education expert who's also an expat - you'll get the most important info on the Swiss education system. 


Kindergarten and primary school: what's different in Switzerland

Kindergarten starts at 4 years old

Kindergarten is part of compulsory schooling for children aged 4 to 6. Children who have reached the age of 4 by the cut-off date (31st July) enter Kindergarten at the beginning of the next school year. 

Kindergarten and primary school together form the primary educational cycle 1 and 2. Primary school is mandatory for children of 6 to 12 years old.


There is no pressure to read/ write in Kindergarten

Expats are always surprised that Kindergarten kids at public school do not learn how to read and write. Swiss Kindergarten prepares children gently for the first grade and focuses on their intellectual development. Kindergarten is all about the child's freely chosen creative activities. Only at the age of 7 do kids start learning how to read and write.


Kids walk to school on their own

If you’re already in Switzerland, you may have been dazzled to see children of kindergarten or primary school age walk to school alone. Don’t worry – it is perfectly normal and, most importantly, safe!

This does not just happen from one day to the next. It takes a lot of involvement from the parents and the city police. Intensive school route monitoring is therefore carried out every year at the start of the school year in the vicinity of school buildings and kindergartens throughout Switzerland, during which the police officers help the kindergarteners and first graders to cross the roads. 

The way to school occupies an important place in the life of a school-age child, where they can exchange ideas with their peers, make friends, deal with conflicts or simply discover their surroundings. Children who are driven to school by their parents miss out on this part of their lives in Switzerland on a formative part of their lives.


Free language support for foreign children

Are you moving to a German-speaking canton and you are worried that your primary-school-aged child doesn’t speak German? There’s not need to be!

Newly arrived pupils who speak very little or no German benefit from the German as a Second Language (DaZ) support programme, which is free-of-charge. Teachers specialised in teaching of German as a Second Language (DaZ) intensively support the children in German so that they can integrate socially and academically as quickly as possible.

In primary school, there is about one year of initial DaZ lessons, followed by less intensive DaZ extension lessons. During the normal teaching hours, the children benefit from intensive German lessons individually or in groups.


Children are encouraged to be independent

In most primary schools across Switzerland, there is one teacher per class, who is responsible for covering the entire curricula. However, other teachers may be involved, too, especially in remedial reading classes, optional art classes, or technology subjects.

As mentioned above, you may also feel that your child isn’t learning enough in kindergarten or primary school. The Swiss educational system prioritises building a connection with the teacher at this stage. The parents are less involved than in other school systems, so that the child becomes more independent and more at ease in school.


Most public schools have paid lunch and afterschool offerings

The Tagesschule or afterschool usually offers lunch and after-school care. The fees parents pay are calculated based on their income level. 


Secondary school in Switzerland: what's different in Switzerland

Secondary school in Switzerland is divided between lower secondary (also known as middle school) for children of 12 to 15 years old and upper secondary for children of 15 to 18 years old. Class sizes range between 16 and 27 in middle school and between 22 – 26 pupils in upper secondary school.

Upon graduating from secondary school all students are proficient in at least 2 languages. Moreover, in secondary school children learn about practical aspects of life, such as cooking and how to file taxes.

Following compulsory education, several options open to each student: from academic to applied sciences and to vocational schooling. If a student chooses either vocational schooling or applied sciences, there is always an option to change to the academic track after successfully completing their initially chosen study track. In some cases, an additional bridge year may be required. 

An important thing to remember for high school children is that, while in primary and middle school teaching materials are free, parents contribute to them in high school.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is offered at certain private and public schools in Switzerland. The IB diploma is an internationally-recognised school-leaving qualification that has been offered throughout the world since 1968. The IB Diploma Programme is an educational programme according to the standards of the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) in Geneva. The curricula and examinations are standardised worldwide and even take place on the same day.

It's mostly private schools in Switzerland that offer IB (International Baccalaureate) programmes, but also a handful of public schools. For instance, in the Basel area Gymnasium am Münsterplatz and Gymnasium Bäumlihof offer the IB programme. 

For more local recommendations, get in touch with one of our education experts

Matura is the highest school-leaving qualification in Switzerland. It is the automatic entrance qualification to all Swiss academic tertiary education or any other institution.

Matura qualifies graduates to attend university. The Matura exam takes place in at least five examination subjects in which graduates must take written and usually also oral examinations. Depending on the canton, examinations are held for: the first language, the second national language (French or Italian), mathematics, a major subject which graduates can choose, and another subject, which is determined by the individual cantons.


University: what's different in Switzerland

Switzerland has top quality universities that are almost free. The main costs are the semester fees which combined are less than CHF 3000/year.

Switzerland has 11 universities ranked in the top 500 worldwide, 7 of which are in the top 170 according to the QS ranking 2021. This is why Switzerland attracts top students from all over the world.

In Switzerland, higher education is comprised of three learning paths of equal standing: Vocational Training, Schools of Applied Sciences and Academia. 

Approximately 70% of young people in Switzerland initially pursue a vocational training that can later be complemented by specialisations, master degrees, or even PHDs.

The preferred educational paths for young people are either Matura followed by university or vocational studies complemented by additional studies. The Swiss educational system has changed quite a lot in recent years to ensure tertiary education equivalency thereby offering students many paths. 

On average 20% of pupils in Switzerland obtain the Matura every year.

Swiss education for special needs / gifted children: what is available in private and public schools.

The Swiss school system is non-discriminatory and offers an equal chance to education to everyone. This is what you can expect in terms of education for your children with special needs.

Public schools:

  • Most public schools are integrating children with special needs within regular classes, offering additional support. This is a relatively new practice.

  • Pupils with special educational needs are supported as inclusively as possible, i.e. within the mainstream class. The mainstream school is the place for learning together. It recognises that pupils differ in terms of level of development, learning and performance, social and linguistic background, or behaviour.  

  • Support for pupils with special educational needs is intended to contribute to the empowerment of all children and young people to integrate and participate in society.

Private schools: 

Most private schools can support children with mild special needs, but in the case of a more serious need, only a handful of private schools can offer the support the families need. Do you have special needs children and would like to know what support there is available?

Check first with the SPD or Schulpsycholigische Dienst/ Psychologies Scolaire in your canton. The SPD provides advice and support on school issues. School psychological counselling and support are voluntary, free of charge and neutral. They are aimed at parents, children and adolescents as well as teachers in the event of problems that arise at school. The SPD carries out assessments and arranges psychotherapy if the stress is great and there is a need for treatment. 

Foundations for Learning provides support to students and families across Switzerland in English. They have a wide range of highly qualified practitioners working in disciplines such as teaching, psychology, behavioural analysis and speech and language.

For Basel, you can also check with ZEPP (Zentrum für Entwicklungs- und Persönlichkeitspsychologie) or The Centre for Developmental and Personality Psychology. ZEPP is an independent practice centre at the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Basel. Their services are aimed at children, adolescents, families, adults and couples and have a team of English speaking therapists. 

Are you looking for more resources in your region? 

Talk to an education expert

More interesting facts about the Swiss school system

Extended music classes at public school

Certain primary and secondary state schools offer extended music lessons. These are not elite classes for musically gifted children, but classes that anyone can participate in and where music is often used in a cross-curricular way.

Classes with extended music lessons actively shape their own schoolhouse culture and regularly perform at public events. This strengthens class cohesion, social competence, and performance skills. Various studies and the experience of the teachers confirm the educational value of music lessons. The children in classes with extended music lessons show a pronounced ability to express themselves, increased stamina and concentration, better willingness to cooperate, and increased motivation to attend school.


Parent-teacher meetings

Worried that you will not be able to communicate with your children’s teachers? Professional translation services are a service offered by schools at no cost to the parents, in the case that the teacher and the parents do not proficiently speak the same language.

Lunchtime care/after school care in Swiss state schools

One of the few downsides of the Swiss public school system is the fact that school is often out by lunch, leaving parents in need of an alternative for childcare. In some schools, lunch and afterschool are offered – they are not free, though.


Home Schooling

Home schooling is not very popular in Switzerland. Only approximately 0.3% of children are home-schooled here, compared to 3.3% in the US.

More importantly, home schooling is not legal everywhere in Switzerland, so make sure to check the laws of the canton you are in before making this decision.


Navigating the Swiss school system – final thoughts

Does the information above feel overwhelming? It might – especially if you’re new to Switzerland. But remember one thing: all you have to do quickly is enroll your child in school. After that, you will have the full support of the school to navigate and understand the system.

And if you need support choosing the best school for your children, talk to an education expert. 

Talk to an education expert