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CHILDREN

The pros and cons of having kids in Switzerland

You’ve chosen to live in Switzerland, but is it also the right place to raise your children? The Local spoke to parents who have taken the plunge and found there were as many positives as negatives.

The pros and cons of having kids in Switzerland
Photo: Romeo Polcan/Swiss Tourism
Pro: It’s a good place to give birth
 
Swiss health insurance isn’t cheap, but it does fully cover the medical costs of giving birth – from check-ups and ultrasound scans during pregnancy to the mother and baby’s hospital stay, post-natal care and breastfeeding advice. You will not be liable for any part of the costs, as Swiss government information website ch.ch outlines. Just as well given that the bills can be extremely high. Laura Hollis, who wrote a pregnancy diary for the website Mothering Matters, estimated that 36 weeks in, her pregnancy had cost 2,838 Swiss francs. 
 
“I have very positive experiences of giving birth via the public hospital system,” says Andrea Snashall, another Mothering Matters contributor. “I liked the doctors, midwives and nurses. I could stay seven nights in hospital to establish breastfeeding and learn about giving the baby a bath etc., as well as recover physically. All paid for by the expensive though excellent health insurance.” 
 
Con: New fathers get hardly any time off
 
Photo: Andy Mort
 
While new mothers in Switzerland are entitled to 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave, there is no statutory paternity leave in Switzerland, where fathers have to make do with one or two days off for the birth of their child. By comparison, paternity leave across the European Union averages 12.5 days. A move to introduce two weeks’ statutory leave for fathers was thrown out by parliament last April. But all may not yet be lost. A popular initiative in favour of giving fathers a minimum of 20 days’ paid leave by law,  ‘For a reasonable paternity leave – in favour of all the family' last November gathered the 100,000 signatures required to put to it a public vote. 
 
Con: It’s tough without a network
 
Having a baby in another country can feel very lonely if you don’t have the support of extended family. And getting to know other mums with kids of a similar age can be quite daunting, admits Snashall, an Australian. “It took a couple of years to feel like I had a peer group I could bounce thoughts off and form friendships with,” she tells The Local. In the first couple of years I had to talk to friends back home when I wanted to have a chat about baby stuff.”
 
“If you are sleep-deprived with a new baby it can sometimes be hard to get out there and make friends,” agrees Kate Orson, who has authored a parenting book. Through her work as a parenting instructor she runs support workshops for parents, which she says have been really popular and help expats cope with the challenges of parenting abroad. 
 
Con: Childcare is limited and expensive
 
Ask any working mother in Switzerland and they will tell you how hard it is to return to work after the birth – because of the scarcity and cost of childcare provision. A full-time nursery place in Geneva and Zurich costs between 13 to 20 percent of a family's income, compared with just 4-6 percent in neighbouring countries.
 
“Unlike the UK where I'm from, they don't have free nursery places for 15 hours. I work from home and my income just isn't enough to pay for childcare, so I made do with a local playgroup a couple of mornings a week just to get a break,” says Orson, adding “I think it would be tricky for me to earn enough to make it worthwhile even if I was working full time.”
 
Things could change for the better though. In June 2016 the federal government said it wanted to reduce the cost of childcare and increase the range of options available. The plan, which is before parliament, would ease the burden of childcare for working parents and encourage women back to work.
 
Pro: The quality of life is high
 
Photo: Christian Perret/Swiss Tourism
 
Switzerland regularly scores well in global quality of life surveys, with both Geneva and Zurich making the top ten of the Mercer survey in 2016. Switzerland was even named top destination for expats in a 2014 poll by bank HSBC thanks to the good work-life balance, availability of outdoor activities (many children start learning to ski as young as two or three) and the family-centric culture. 
 
“The fresh air, countryside and more peaceful way of life are really family friendly. And I actually do like the short school hours, as it gives plenty of time for connecting and being with my daughter,” says Orson. 
 
Pro: It’s safe 
 
Switzerland is known as a safe country, and this was backed up the Mercer survey that placed Zurich and the capital Bern joint second for safety along with Finnish capital Helsinki, behind Luxemburg in first place.  
 
“It’s quite safe. I like that the kids can walk to school on their own. That’s fun for them and it teaches them independence,” Snashall tells The Local. “Sometimes they take 30 plus minutes to come home when it should take 10 but they’re playing and exploring along the way.”
 
Jennifer Weaver Dziekan of the Expat Arrivals website believes that thanks to that safety, children in Switzerland are independent earlier than their peers in the United States where she comes from. “Children are often seen walking alone, riding bikes or taking the bus with friends. There are no major safety issues in Switzerland, and most places are safe even at night,” she writes on the website. 
 
Con: You have to adapt to the Swiss school system
 
Schooling starts late in Switzerland, usually at age seven following one or two years of kindergarten. The state education system is generally considered good, and very few children attend private schools. But the fact that education is organized by the cantons also complicates things, with each having its own system and holidays.
 
Children don’t learn to read and write until they have started school, which may surprise some expat parents. “In kindergarten there is absolutely not one mention of the alphabet, which is sort of nice – they can just play while learning social skills, coordination, language skills, etc. – but by the last semester of the second year of kindergarten my son was totally bored,” says Andrea Snashall.
 
Another issue is the school hours, which can make it hard for mothers to work more than part-time. “Schools often have an extended lunch break and may not have a cafeteria. Most kids go home for lunch and then go back to school,” writes Weaver Dziekan. 
 
Pro: Your kids will be exposed to languages
 
Photo: Christof Sonderegger/ Swiss Tourism
 
For many parents a big advantage of raising children here is that they will grow up bilingual at least. If you live in the German-speaking part of the country your offspring will be able to communicate in standard German as well as Swiss dialect. And they will pick up a second national language plus English in secondary if not primary school.
 
“The fact that they learn two foreign languages in school is really good. Although obviously English isn’t foreign to my kids so I’m delighted they’re learning French from an early age,” says Snashall.
 
…and they will be a whizz at maths
 
Swiss pupils excel at mathematics, according to the most recent Pisa report international study, which placed the Swiss top in Europe for maths skills. They also did well in science, coming out above the OECD average.
 
Con: Your children won’t be Swiss
 
Just being born in Switzerland doesn’t entitle the children of expats to a Swiss passport or make it easier to come by. 
 
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FAMILY

EXPLAINED: What are the rules for homeschooling children in Switzerland?

Homeschooling is not completely banned in Switzerland, but it is heavily regulated. Here’s what you need to know.

Children work through their studies at home
Homeschooling is not banned nationwide in Switzerland, but it is heavily regulated - while some cantons outlaw it completely. Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

The debate surrounding homeschooling in Switzerland – as with elsewhere in Europe – has been particularly fraught in recent years. 

Due to geographical problems accessing schools or the special needs of a child – as well as other practical and ideological differences –  parents have sometimes seen homeschooling as an alternative. 

One reason provided by foreign parents is a desire to teach their child in their own language. 

For parents from other parts of the world, particularly English-speaking countries, they are used to rules for home schooling children which are relatively relaxed. 

It can then be surprising when people arrive in Switzerland to find that home school can be either outright banned, or heavily restricted. 

This may be less of a practical problem in Switzerland in comparison to the United States or Australia, where distances are small, but for some parents it may be an ideological issue where they would prefer to homeschool their children rather than have this done at an educational institution. 

As with pretty much everything in Switzerland, if and how you can homeschool your kids will depend on the rules in place in your canton. 

Keep in mind that this guide refers to children who are being sent to school at home on a permanent basis, not children who are being taught at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What are the rules at a federal level? 

Education for children is compulsory in Switzerland. 

However, the federal government leaves it up to the cantons to regulate the manner in which schooling is carried out – including homeschooling. 

A court case from 2019 sought to assert a right to homeschooling under the Swiss constitution, but this was dismissed. 

The Swiss Federal Court handed down a ruling which upheld the rights of cantons to restrict or even ban homeschooling. 

The court effectively said Swiss residents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children, allowing cantons the legislative power to decide upon whether or not it should be restricted. 

The case concerned a mother who wanted to homeschool her child in the city of Basel, where homeschooling is only permitted if the parent can show that school attendance is impossible. 

The Swiss constitution guarantees a right to privacy and family life, but the court said that this did not extend to homeschooling. 

What are the cantonal rules? 

Homeschooling is permitted to some degree in 16 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. 

It is completely banned in Ticino, while in others such as St Gallen and Zurich although it is allowed, getting permission to homeschool is seen as “virtually impossible”.

While getting up-to-date figures is difficult due to data privacy issues, around 140 children are homeschooled in Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous canton. 

In Lucerne, Valais, Freibourg, Zug and Schwyz there is a requirement that parents who homeschool are accredited as teachers, while Bern and Aargau allow homeschooling teachers to operate without an accreditation.

In Basel City, parents must show that school attendance is impossible – which is particularly different in the tiny canton (at least with a geographical argument). 

In the above case, the mother’s argument that the authorities were not doing enough for her gifted son was unsuccessful in court. 

According to Swissinfo, in 2019 no children were being homeschooled in Basel. 

Homeschooling is more popular in the French-speaking part of the country. 

Of the 1,000 children who are homeschooled in Switzerland, approximately 600 of them are in the canton of Vaud. 

Vaud and neighbour Neuchâtel are considered to be one of the most permissive of homeschooling in Switzerland. In these cantons, you only need to alert the authorities if you plan on homeschooling your children – although there have been recent signs this will be further restricted in future. 

Why is homeschooling banned?

Although in many English-speaking cultures homeschooling is common place, it is frequently restricted or banned throughout Europe.

While it is constitutionally guaranteed in Italy and Ireland, other countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden ban the practice. 

Common justifications for banning homeschooling include a need to ensure children receive the same moral and ideological foundation, a desire to ensure school attendance, a lack of social skills among homeschooled children and concerns about the standard of education.

Is this likely to change? 

There are some advocacy groups which have spent considerable resources and time pushing for more relaxed home schooling rules in Switzerland, some of which are run by internationals who want their children’s education to look a little more familiar to what they know. 

There are several federal and cantonal advocacy organisations for homeschooling which can be found online. 

However, given how slowly things happen in Switzerland – and the fact that the major advocates of homeschooling tend to be foreigners rather than Swiss – means that any widespread changes are unlikely anytime soon. 

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