The Swiss education system: What you need to know
Published on June 15, 2023
Switzerland is a great place to raise a family, thanks to its safe environment and its high quality of life. But if you’re considering moving to Switzerland with your family, then some extra considerations are in order — starting with the schooling situation for your children.
Succeeding within the Swiss education system may require some adaptation on both your and your kids’ part. For example, four different languages are spoken widely in Switzerland, and finding the right school-language combination is important. To ease the transition, we’re here to give you a solid understanding of the Swiss education system and help you choose the school best suited to your children’s needs and interests.
If you compare the Swiss public education system to the system in the United States, you’ll quickly notice a few similarities and differences.
The good news is that the Swiss education system regularly ranks among the best in the world. If you choose a state school over a private school, you may also be happy to know that public education is free in Switzerland. This is nothing to sneeze at, given Switzerland’s generally high cost of living in other respects.
The education system in Switzerland is organized at two levels — the federal level and the canton level. At the federal level, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation ensures general coordination. Some basic rules and principles apply throughout the country; for example, education is compulsory from primary school until the age of 15. Beyond these basic rules, Swiss cantons generally have control over their own education structure, school calendar and curriculum.
Classes are typically taught in the canton’s dominant language, be it German, French, Italian or Romansh. Pupils are also usually required to learn a second national language, as well as English. This may represent the biggest challenge your child will face when entering a Swiss school. Thankfully, many state schools provide introductory or intensive language courses for children who don’t have the necessary level to follow classes in the local language. The public education system in Switzerland similarly caters to children with special education needs.
The Swiss school system includes the same general categories of preschools, primary schools and secondary schools you may recognize from your home country. But the closer you look, the more specificities you’ll observe — especially with regard to secondary education.
Even before school is compulsory, most children in Switzerland begin attending kindergarten from about the age of four. While they don’t receive a formal education in kindergarten, this is a space for them to develop their social skills through music and crafts, among other activities. Kindergarten also represents a good opportunity for a child to gain exposure to the local language. If you have an even younger toddler, you also have the possibility to sign them up to a crèche.
From about the age of six, children officially start their formal, compulsory education by entering primary school. This is where they are taught to read and write in the dominant local language, as well as in a second national language and English. Depending on the canton you live in, primary school may last from four to six years.
In Switzerland, secondary education is divided into two parts: a lower secondary school and an upper secondary school. If you compare the Swiss public education system vs the US one, the lower secondary school corresponds to the American middle school, while the upper secondary school corresponds to the American high school.
Students usually attend lower secondary school for three years, from the age of 11 or 12 until 15. Only in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino does lower secondary school last four years. Once again, the curriculum includes the local language of the canton, a second (or third) national language and English. Students also study math, sciences, history, geography, civic education, home economics, art, music, physical education and other subjects.
The end of lower secondary education marks the end of compulsory education in Switzerland. This milestone is not tied to a national exam or diploma, even though some cantons have set up their own. This is probably why over 90% of Swiss students decide to continue their education and attend an upper secondary school.
Swiss students can choose between three types of upper secondary schools: vocational education and training (VET), baccalaureate schools and specialized schools.
About two-thirds of Swiss students sign up for a VET program. During two to four years, they divide their time between classroom lessons l and an apprenticeship at a training company. This is a very popular option with a good reputation internationally. It can pave the way to top positions in major banks or in Swiss politics.
Next come baccalaureate schools, which about a third of Swiss students opt for. They open the doors to Swiss universities by providing a general education. The curriculum is quite wide, with a large array of core subjects. These subjects include a first national language, a second national language and a third language (another national language, English, Latin or Greek). Other core subjects may include mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geography and visual arts or music. Introductory courses in economics, law or philosophy are also sometimes possible. After four years, most students take final exams in at least five subjects.
Only about 5% of Swiss students choose to go to an upper secondary specialized school. There, over three years, they receive a mix of general education and preparation for professional education and training (PET) in specific roles, such as social work or the healthcare sector. At the end, they must pass a final exam in at least six subjects to obtain their certificate.
So far, we’ve focused on the free public education options in Switzerland. However, depending on their Swiss salary, parents who can afford it may prefer to send their children to a private school. They have the choice between religious (mostly Catholic) schools, Montessori schools and international schools.
Many expat parents register their children in international private schools, where they can obtain international or foreign diplomas such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, A-Levels or the French baccalauréat. Such private international schools often provide education from kindergarten to upper secondary school. This ensures that expat children have the option for a continuous and seamless education, after the initial adaptation phase they must go through.
Before packing up your bags and moving to Switzerland with your family, make sure you’re well aware of the structure of the Swiss education system. This will help you to choose the right school for your children, depending on their age, their interests and their needs.