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EXPLAINED: What every parent needs to know about the Swiss school system

If you’re an academic professional with a family in Switzerland, the range of options in education can seem bewildering.

EXPLAINED: What every parent needs to know about the Swiss school system
Pic: Getty/mediaphotos

Together with Robin Hull of Hull’s School, Zürich, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of some of the curricula on offer to international parents. We also introduce his new book, that acts as a useful ‘road map’ to education in Switzerland.

As parents, we all want the best for our children, and central to their success is the right choice of school. In the previous two decades, an increasing number of parents have moved to Switzerland with their children. In response, many educational institutions have emerged to educate these students.

We also want to give our children access to the widest range of opportunities in regards to further education. Unfortunately, this is where Switzerland has not managed to catch up in terms of range and flexibility. Therefore, it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different curricula.

Purchase ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ today, and take control of your children’s future academic success

The Maturitätszeugnis is perhaps the broadest university entrance examination in Europe with mandatory advanced Algebra, three languages, all sciences, history, geography, music art and physical education. However, there is very little room for specialisation in the final two years, given the number of subjects that students have to take until the very end. While it may be an excellent route to studying in Switzerland, it may be less ideal for the rest of Europe and particularly the leading Russell Group universities of the UK.

The International Baccalaureate is one of the most high profile options for ‘international’ high school students. It has a widely recognized curriculum, with the mandatory Theory of Knowledge subject seen as an excellent preparation for tertiary students. The ‘IB’ is well recognized by European and English universities, but is seen as tougher on youngsters who are not natural ‘all-rounders’, especially when it comes to mathematical knowledge. Like the Maturitätszeugnis, it is considered to have impressive breadth, but less flexibility and depth than A-levels.

The IGCSE / A-levels may not have the local profile of the Maturitätszeugnis or the International Baccalaureate. However, it is a very strong tool for entry into UK Russell Group universities, who expect a high level of depth and specialisation, and is consistently accepted throughout Switzerland, Europe and the USA. Together with the IB, it is widely understood to be the world’s best established university entrance qualification.

Bewildered by the range of curricula on offer in Switzerland? Purchase ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ today to understand what’s on offer

While this is only the broadest of overviews, a new book, ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ by Robin Hull, is the first comprehensive, detailed guide to the school curricula available within Switzerland. It is ideal for those parents and students who want to understand where their schooling choices will take them.

Robin Hull is the Principal of Hull’s School in Zurich, Switzerland’s first English-language sixth form college offering IGCSE A-Levels. Under the guidance and experience of Hull, the school has become a centre of excellence in education, sending students to universities all over the world.

If you have children approaching their secondary schooling, it’s important that you take the time to understand how the choices you and your children make will dictate their academic future. ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ by Robin Hull is a powerful tool of intervention, to ensure that your children are placed on the right track for their future studies.

Purchase ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ today, and ensure that your child is primed for academic success

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CHILDREN

How different is raising kids in Switzerland compared to the United States?

What can families anticipate with regard to raising children in Switzerland and in which ways does it differ from the United States? Here is a look at some of the main differences.

How different is raising kids in Switzerland compared to the United States?

Moving to a new country can come with a pretty big learning curve – especially if you’re moving with family.

Schools

Switzerland offers the choice between public, private, international, and boarding schools. Public schools are however the norm for the vast majority of kids – of about 5,000 schools in Switzerland, only about 300 are private.

International schools are a popular option for families that have been in international schools in other countries, or if they’re keen on their kids being immersed in and developing their English.

Some of the top boarding schools can be found in Switzerland, with families from all over the world sending their kids to them. Wait lists can be long, but this sleep-away option is available for kids ages 3-18. 

Approximately 95 percent of Swiss parents send their children to public schools because they are free and because the educational system is such high quality.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to raise a child in Switzerland?

Many international parents opt for public schools so their kids can pick up the local language and make local friends. Public schools in Switzerland are fantastic and your child will have access to a solid education complete with activities and outings.

There are physical education activities in addition to recess and bi-monthly trips for swimming lessons, and often ice skating in the winter. 

Parents and students alike will almost immediately notice a difference in the amount of homework that comes home.

Heather Wittkopp has two sons that go to a private school in the German-speaking region, near Zug. She recalls the struggles back in Pennsylvania.

“It was very stressful and we would constantly be studying. We fought about it. It was hours of homework. It was not a good situation.”

When asked if things have gotten better since their move to Switzerland about two-and-a-half years ago, her tone completely changes.

“Coming here to the international school was just eye opening. It’s amazing what they learn here, but it’s also that the pressure isn’t there. In the US you’re constantly memorising for tests. And here, it’s more like they’re teaching for the real world– like how to think outside the box.

They’re doing a lot of projects where you’re constantly with people and you have to collaborate and you have to work with all different types of people and figure out how you can work together in a team.”

Getting to-and-from school 

While the US has a heavy drive-to-school and drop-off culture, parents in Switzerland are actively encouraged not to use cars to bring kids to class. Most kids walk, though it’s common to see children on bicycles or scooters heading to school. 

There are high levels of social trust in Switzerland which means children, most as young as four and five years old, start learning to walk to and from school alone.

READ MORE: How to save money on childcare in Switzerland

Not only is this practice of raising independent children a family affair, the whole community is supportive and aware of it. There are crossing guards at all major streets who help students as they go to classes and as they go home for lunch or after school. 

When asked about her thoughts on the level of social trust and the independence culture, working mom, Lara Junod says, “It’s pretty amazing that in this day and age, you know, in 2022 with the world that we’re in, that this can still exist. It shows that people do look out in your community.”

Originally from New York, Lara has lived with her husband and six-year-old daughter in French-speaking Lausanne for the past three years. “They teach them here to be quite independent, quite young.”

International schools are a popular choice for foreigners in Switzerland. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

International schools are a popular choice for foreigners in Switzerland. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Home for lunch

A two-hour lunch break is scheduled into the day, allowing for students to head home and have lunch with their families. If the parents work, however, there are after-school programs for which children can be signed up.

These programs provide lunch and care for the two hour break and primary school children will return to school for the rest of the school day before coming back to the after-school care program.

In the evening when the program shuts down, children are either picked up or will walk back home on their own. 

READ MORE: What is emergency childcare in Switzerland and how do I access it? 

Extracurricular activities

Each canton offers weekly sports activities for children in kindergarten and primary school during the school year. The cost for the weekly activity is minimal and offers children something to do after school, gives them an opportunity to make new friends, and learn new athletic skills.

An example of some of these would be some of the traditional sports played in the US, but also fencing, sailing, American football, dance, and yoga, among others. 

Daycare Quality

What about babies and younger kids who aren’t old enough to start kindergarten? There is a mixture of for-profit and not-for-profit childcare throughout the country.

Some daycare centres offer full immersion in the local language while others offer bilingual care (the local language and English). In public, not-for-profit daycare, parents can still expect a child-focused curriculum that supports young children’s development and growth. 

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

It’s imperative to note that the cost for daycare in Switzerland is very high, costing around 2,500 Francs per month, per child, although some subsidies are available depending on the overall household income.

Due to this and in conjunction with traditional values, many children will stay home with a parent until they are of kindergarten age.

There are, however, play groups which allow for parents with babies and younger children to network and for both child and parent to socialise. Play groups can be for a couple hours at a time and are offered through churches and community centres several times per week. 

Home life

While things at home will probably carry on much as they would in the United States, there are some nuances to living in Switzerland.

For example, there are dedicated quiet hours to which everyone adheres.

From 10 o’clock at night until 7 A.M., people are quiet.

Additionally, there is a quiet hour from noon until 1P.M., so people can have a relaxed lunch and potentially quiet time for a lie down.

Finally, Sunday, in its entirety, is a quiet day.

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