Education in Switzerland

Switzerland has always been well regarded for its high standard of living. Globally mobile families are embracing the country’s way of life, its climate, its healthy outdoor lifestyle, and its excellent education provision.

Inter-community International School Zurich

Inter-Community School Zurich

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Switzerland is home to a top-class state-education system and some of the best international and private schools in the world. This means that relocating parents with school-age children are likely to be spoilt for choice when selecting a new school.According to figures from the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics, expats now make up one quarter of the country’s population and the country consistently ranks highly in HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey, which ranks countries according to expats’ views of the destination. In 2019, Switzerland ranked in 1st place overall for its improved quality of life and impressive pay and swift career progression.

Switzerland’s education system

State education is run and funded by the 26 cantons. The system is efficient and established, but can create some confusion for those entering the country, as each canton can have a slightly different approach to education provision.The language of instruction – usually German, French, Italian or Romansh – will depend on the region. Basic proficiency in the relevant language, or at least a willingness to learn, is a must, but language learning is a high priority in Swiss state schools, and, as a rule, most students learn at least two other languages during their school years. These are likely to be one of the other official languages of Switzerland, and English.

Pre-school and lower secondary

All the cantons offer one to two years of free pre-school education – kindergarten or école enfantine. At present, the canton of Ticino offers three years’ scuola dell’infanzia.Compulsory education in Switzerland lasts for around 11 years; pre-school is compulsory only in some of the cantons. Typically, children start primary school at the age of five or six and lower-secondary education at 11.In almost all cantons, lower-secondary level lasts for three years. Pupils receive instruction in all or some subjects in performance-based groups. The manner in which they are assessed depends on the canton, but relocating children in these year groups should expect to be assessed in some way before being placed in a local school.

Upper secondary

At the end of lower secondary, around the age of 15, students move into some form of upper-secondary schooling. It is at this point that they are streamed into either a vocational route, known as vocational education and training (VET), which includes practical training and class-based teaching, or a more strictly academic route, such as a Baccalaureate school or an upper-secondary specialised school.A Baccalaureate education typically prepares students for further study at university. Upper-secondary specialised schools largely prepare them for professional education and training, and for entry to universities of applied sciences, depending on the programme followed at the school. Students taking the vocational route also have the option of attending university-level colleges following the completion of their upper-secondary education.The conditions that students wishing to enter each route are required to meet vary. They include entrance exams, average grades at lower secondary, and teacher recommendation. The website of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) contains detailed information about each upper-secondary education route.

Education standards

International business school INSEAD gave Switzerland first place in its 2017/18 Global Competitiveness Index, and it is still holding onto the top spot in 2019. “In Switzerland, thinking about becoming employable starts off in schools at an early age,” says Paul Evans, holder of INSEAD’s Shell Chair of Human Resources and Organisational Development. “At age 15, over 70 per cent of Swiss schoolchildren go on to select what’s known as the apprenticeship track, combining practical work experience with traditional theoretical learning.“Within the current Swiss government, half of the ministers have come out of the vocational stream. For future talent competitiveness, countries have to take vocational education – that is, employability – much more seriously.”Switzerland’s secondary-school pupils have also demonstrated their academic excellence in the 2015 international league tables run by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In a survey of the educational achievement of 15-year-old students in around 65 OECD countries, Switzerland’s mean maths performance was the highest among all European countries.

International and independent schools

Against the backdrop of such an exemplary state-education system, independent schools offer the relocating family an alternative, perhaps more internationally transferable, learning programme – especially if the planned move is short-term and the family plans either to repatriate or to move on to a new overseas assignment.In a multi-lingual country such as Switzerland, there is also the opportunity to learn a new language. The Inter-Community School (ICS) Zurich, an English-language international school, which offers the IB Bilingual Diploma, has an innovative approach to developing children’s language skills. The language of instruction is English, but German holds an important place in the ICS curriculum.Children can choose a bilingual strand in the Early Years Programme and in Grade 3 within their first weeks at ICS, children embark on language immersion in the Swiss Alps where – for 24 hours – all of the instruction is in German.“Students find that they don’t need to be fluent to get through a day. They learn that with creativity, courage and collaboration they can understand and make themselves understood,” says a member of the ICS Communications Department.In the end, relocation to Switzerland offers globally mobile families an enviable choice of provision for their school-age children. Whether they choose local integration in a state-funded school or an internationally transferable learning programme in one of the country’s excellent international schools, parents can be assured of a quality education for their children.
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