The school system in Switzerland is designed to equip Swiss people and expats with the skills to excel in their careers. Much of the Swiss system is designed to train people for a specific form of work or for higher education. Switzerland’s schooling system is publicly funded and ran by your local county (canton). If you are starting a family in Switzerland and want your child to attend Swiss school, it is important to know what is offered, whether any schools are selective and how much mandatory schooling each canton offers.
What are Swiss schools like?
Swiss school days are relatively short, with classes beginning between 8.30 and 9.30am. It is then expected for your child to return home at noon for a one-and-a-half-hour lunch break. Then there is an afternoon session that concludes around 3.30 to 4.30pm. Some technical schools use afternoons to send students to designated apprenticeships, occasionally with international companies. It also must be noted that in addition to school holidays, Swiss students have every Wednesday afternoon off. This time is usually allocated for sports or extracurricular activities.
Day care and preschool in Switzerland (KiTa, Kinderkrippen, Kindertagesstätte, Kindergarten)
In the earliest years of your child’s life, you have the opportunity to access childcare. This is offered between birth and the age of four to six. This time is an ideal opportunity to socialise your child and allow them to start education early. Childcare facilities are usually privately run, with childcare in Switzerland offering wide and diverse options to assist with your child’s development. Many daycare centres also offer groups in English. Some cantons have mandatory early years programmes which are paid through the Swiss tax system.
Primary schools in Switzerland
Primary education is mandatory for all students and can last for six to nine years. When children start their schooling depends on their canton, but most begin school at the age of six to seven. The primary school system is designed to build up your child’s confidence with basic problem solving, cognitive function and social interaction. There are no significant internal assessments while you are there, apart from applications to secondary education.
Primary education (Volksschule)
Primary education is typically your child’s first experience of school. Classes range from 15 to 30 students and usually have one teacher and an assistant. Children will receive all their classes from a single teacher, with the exception of foreign languages. Primary school lasts for six years and leads into higher primary or applications for long gymnasium.
Higher primary education (Oberstufenschule)
Higher primary education is an elementary school that lasts for three years and is designed to give students more time to decide on their middle and higher education. These schools are usually found within primary schools and are used to teach technical skills or encourage higher learning. These schools also offer extensive career counselling and are tasked with finding and assigning apprenticeships.
Secondary education in Switzerland
The secondary education system in Switzerland is where students begin to specialise for their future careers. Switzerland differs from English-speaking countries in that many students leave after the mandatory 11 years of school and choose to select apprenticeships over higher education. This is one of the reasons why the enrolment rate in universities is comparatively low compared to other nations. Once you have completed your primary education, you will be allowed to apply for three different routes. This is also the stage where you can specialise into a specific type of school.
Short grammar school (Kurzzeitgymnasium)
Short gymnasium is the most akin to a middle and high school. These courses are selective and require extensive testing in order to get in. These schools are designed for those who wish to go to university quickly, as most short gymnasiums last four and a half years. However, it must be noted that the standards for entry are very high, with knowledge of maths, German, sciences, other languages and the humanities essential to apply.
If you find that your child needs more time to prepare for the final exam, it is recommended to attend a long gymnasium. Bear in mind that each year you are in a gymnasium, you must achieve the passing grade or face expulsion or be held back a year. Once you have completed your short gymnasium, you will receive a Matura certificate, similar to A levels, SAT or an IB diploma.
Long grammar school (Langzeitgymnasium)
The most common route for those who wish to attend university is the long grammar school or long gymnasium. This is the equivalent of a short gymnasium, with the time extended to six to seven years. Each year you are in a long gymnasium, you must pass the annual exams like in a short grammar school, however, school masters are typically more lenient to students and may offer a transfer to a differently specialised gymnasium if you fail. This is why some Swiss students only begin attending university at age 20. Once you have completed your long gymnasium, you will receive the same Matura as the short gymnasium.
Apprenticeship (Berufslehre, Berufsschule, LIRA)
Apprenticeship programmes are still the most popular route for Swiss students to take after primary school. In this system, each canton has a list of employers who will give apprenticeships to primary school leavers. For this, these companies receive subsidies from the state in order to educate the student. The amount of time spent at work or at school is dependent on the type of apprenticeship being completed, with more administrative and technical roles usually retaining an even split of work and school until the last year of the apprenticeship.
The types of apprenticeships can range from becoming a farmer to becoming a financial advisor. It is also not uncommon for apprentice graduates to go to university after some time working. Once your apprenticeship is complete, if you have chosen a more specialised job sector, you will attend a college as part of higher education.
What happens when you graduate in Switzerland?
Most students end their education at around 16 to 20 years old. After receiving a Matura, LIRA or technical qualification, you have the opportunity to access higher education in Switzerland. Graduates from an apprenticeship can access evening colleges, applied science universities and Matura schools. Graduates from gymnasium can go on and attend a university in Switzerland. Those who don't will start looking for a job.
School system by canton
When you are thinking of moving to Switzerland, it is important to know what system of schooling is used in your local canton, what is mandatory school and what your options are for your child when entering secondary education.
- 9 years mandatory schooling: Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Graubunden
- 10 years mandatory schooling: Appenzell Innerrhoden, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Uri, Zug
- 11 years mandatory schooling: Aargau, Basel Land, Basel Stadt, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, Glarus, Jura, Neuchatel, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Ticino, Valais, Vaud, Zurich
- 5 years of primary school: Ticino
- 6 years of primary school: Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden Basel Land, Basel Stadt, Bern, Glarus, Graubunden, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, Zurich
- 8 years of primary school: Fribourg, Geneva, Jura, Neuchatel, Valais, Vaud
All cantons with the exception of Appenzell Ausserrhoden (2 years) and Ticino (4 years) have 3 years of mandatory middle school.