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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Switzerland has found a winning formula for its primary schools

When it comes to primary schools Switzerland has got it right, writes Clare O'Dea although there are a few areas that could be improved upon.

Switzerland gets it right when it comes to primary school. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Switzerland gets it right when it comes to primary school. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

My youngest child recently finished primary school, marking the end of our 11-year connection with the local school, one of four German-language primary schools in Fribourg city. Looking back in a slightly rose-tinted way, this is my school report for the local public school system: mostly excellent with just a few points where it could do better. 

First of all, we as parents never faced any dilemma about where our children were going to attend school. No research was required, no application process, not a single anxious conversation. Because the children were registered in the commune, they were automatically granted places in the nearest school when they reached kindergarten age.

We knew that the allocated school would have the same standard of teaching and facilities as any other school in the canton, that the teachers would be paid the same and that we would get the same treatment as any other family. That is not a given in every country.

The fact that almost all children in Switzerland go to the local public school for their catchment area adds greatly to the sense of community here, and automatically connects the children of the locality to each other. 

The two kindergarten or école enfantine years offer a gentle introduction to school life. In our school, older children were nominated as ‘godparents’ to the newcomers. Education wise, the ethos in Swiss schools is not to jump into literacy as soon as possible but to spend those first two years working on pre-literacy skills. By the time reading and writing is taught, Swiss children quickly catch up with their peers who learned the alphabet as tiny tots. 

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

The sheer variety and richness of the weekly school experience at no extra cost is impressive. For instance, Swiss schools have embraced the trend of outdoor teaching with younger children. In the early years my children spend one morning a week in the forest with their teachers in all weathers. Good for the soul and the senses. 

The other activities built into the curriculum are sports, music, swimming lessons, in our case once every three weeks, a monthly visit to the local library where all the children come home laden with books, and monthly ice-skating afternoons in winter. 

They also have specialised teachers for arts and crafts, including skills like woodwork, sewing, knitting, pottery, the works. The only possible downside to this is the mountains of objects brought home to keep forever.

In Fribourg, there is free transport to and from school and parents are discouraged from driving their children to primary school. Children from the age of five or six go to school independently on foot, by bicycle, by bus as if it were the most normal thing in the world, which it is to them.

Our school arranged a summer camp every three years so that all children got to experience it twice in their school career. They did the same thing with ski camps, with financial support and equipment offered to families on low incomes.

 

The school holds an annual autumn hike for the pupils and various events for the whole family to attend – a Christmas market, end-of-year party and other open days. The children always had something to look forward to. It takes a special commitment from the staff to make the school such an entertaining and positive place. 

VERDICT: How to save money when raising children in Switzerland

A wide range of free therapies are also offered in the school building, including speech therapy, help with dyslexia and dyscalculia and motor skills, for instance. Additional classes of German as a second language are also provided for those who needed it.

Of course the school is not paradise. Any large group of humans will have complications. Over the years, I knew of two families who moved their children out of the school to private schools because they were not happy and also a small number of children who were moved to special schools because the school couldn’t manage them. 

And inevitably, all good things come to an end. In general in Switzerland, the education system includes a streaming framework for children at the end of primary school to decide what type of class the children will join in secondary school. 

This selection system on Fribourg is based on continuous assessment, the teacher’s opinion and a special exam. It has its critics and causes stress to some families who feel there is a lot at stake. This is where reality intrudes on the idyll. How the transition goes depends a lot on the atmosphere created by the teacher and the parents’ attitude. 

Overall, our local primary school succeeded in creating a safe space for our children to grow, learn, gain independence and a sense of responsibility. As parents, we appreciated that our children spent their days in a loving supportive atmosphere. It’s what every child should have.

Member comments

  1. Agree there are some very positive aspects to the Swiss public schools. They did a great job with integration classes for our English-speaking sons as well.
    However, as the parent of a neuro-atypical child, the segregation policy for any disabled children is completely unacceptable and negates the positives. Imagine growing up in a world where anyone who doesn’t behave or look like you is sent “away”. Unbelievable in the 21st century and needs to be seriously addressed.

  2. My kids are Swiss-English, and I loathed the Primary Schools here. Once, my youngest daughter had a dreadful teacher, who’d been in the profession for many years, and was giving 3-4 hours of homework in the first year of school. Frighteningly, we were the only parents to complain about this. Oh, and if she lost a pen or a pencil, this particular teacher had decided that you MUST buy a replacement directly from her. Huh ?!

    Another time, my daughter was telling her teacher (female, in her mid-40s) that my ex-wife was looking a job. Without missing a beat, the teacher replied “Why does she want a job ? She’s a mother, that’s her job.” Oh great, we’re still living in the 1940s, apparently.

    Years later, the same daughter was being taught in upper-school that if you come across someone bleeding or knocked down in the street, don’t touch them or help them. You don’t want to get sued if something goes wrong.

    Sorry, there are many faults with the English schooling that I got, and I don’t have plans to return to England… but I do prefer the way English schools work. Or, we’ve just been really unlucky with bad teachers.

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FAMILY

How does the cost of childcare in Switzerland compare to elsewhere in Europe?

Childcare in Switzerland is not cheap, in fact it's on the most expensive in Europe as our comparison reveals.

How does the cost of childcare in Switzerland compare to elsewhere in Europe?

Switzerland

The average Swiss family spends a massive 41 percent of their net income on childcare, three times the OECD average of 13 percent.

The high costs of childcare are a frequent complaint of many a parent in Switzerland. 

While this of course varies dramatically from canton to canton, the average cost of childcare in Switzerland is CHF130 a day (€136).

Due to tax breaks and subsidies paid out in the cantons, many parents will pay between 30 and 80 percent of this cost, depending on income. This equates to paying between €41 and €108 a day, roughly €902 to €2,376 a month.

 

It’s even more expensive to hire a nannie, which will cost between CHF3,500 (€3,678) and CHF5,000 (€5,255) a month, including mandatory pension contributions.

It is difficult to provide a nationwide overview due to the fact that things differ from canton to canton, but all cantons offer some form of subsidy for childcare costs depending on your income. 

Be warned though that subsidies will be determined on the basis of both parents’ income, with two parents both earning an average income often not qualifying for subsidies in some cantons. 

The amount you pay will be based on last year’s tax figure. 

Cantons will often provide assistance in working out whether you qualify for a subsidy and how much it will be. 

In Zurich for instance, if you earn 80,000 per year, you will be liable for around 70 francs per day. 

While the differences from canton to canton may be confusing, the fact that there are 26 different sets of rules can actually work out in your favour. 

For instance, some cantons have introduced more competitive subsidy systems recently in order to attract workers (and their taxes). 

Norway

The cost of nursery and kindergarten is capped at 3,050 Norwegian kroner, regardless of the hours attended or whether that facility is state-run or private. This means you’ll never pay more than roughly €295 a month per child in childcare costs.

Sweden

Generally, the highest amount parents have to pay for a full-time place in childcare is 1,572 SEK a month, which is around €145. The exact amount is calculated on income. It is half price if you have more than one child in childcare. 

Germany

The costs for daycare centres (Kindertagesstätte, or Kita for short) can differ greatly depending on where you live in Germany, as the fees are set by the local government.

In Schleswig-Holstein in the far north, parents pay on average nine percent of their after-tax income on childcare costs. In Hamburg, 4.4 percent of parent’s income goes on childcare as every child in entitled to five hours of free care a day. In Berlin, daycare is completely free. 

Spain

Costs can vary depending on whether it is a  private or public guardería or centro infantil (as nurseries are called in Spanish).

Public ones are heavily subsidised by the government and cost around €100-260 per month, depending on where you live in Spain and your situation. Private nurseries cost between €150 and €580 per month. There is also a fixed yearly fee called a matrícula or enrolment fee, which is around €100.

There is a 50 percent discount for large families and single parents don’t have to pay anything for childcare.

There’s also a deduction of up to €1,000 (cheque guardería) that is applied to the income tax return and works out at around €100 to €160 per month which is aimed at working mothers and is available up until the child is three years old.

France

In France, crèches tend to be the most affordable option and the cost is based on the family’s income. High earners might pay up to a maximum of €4.20 an hour (€33.60 for an 8-hour day), whereas low-income families might pay €0.26 an hour (€2.08 for an 8-hour day) at a crèche collective, which is for three months to three year olds. At the age of three, compulsory education begins in France.

The cost of a childminder is around €10.88 an hour and up to 50 percent of the costs of a nanny or professional childminder can be reimbursed by the government.

The OECD calculations on the percentage of income spent on childcare – based on two parents both working full time – is 13 percent in France. This is roughly similar to Spain and Italy.

Austria

Public nurseries and kindergartens are heavily subsidised and in some cases free, depending on where you live. For example in Vienna, parents only need to pay €72.33 a month to cover meal costs, with low income families being exempt from that fee.
 
Vienna also subsidises private kindergartens, paying up to €635.44 a month directly to the institution. 
 
In other provinces, kindergarten is free for part-time hours. It is mandatory for all children in Austria to attend part-time kindergarten from the age of five. They start school aged six.
 

Denmark

In Denmark, every child is guaranteed a place at a public childcare facility from the age of six months. The government pays 75 percent of the cost of a place or even more if your household income is below a certain threshold. 

The exact amount parents pay depends on the Kommune. In Copenhagen Municipality, the cost of nursery (vuggestue up to 2 years and 10 months) is 4,264 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €573). For kindergarten (børnehave from 2 years and 10 months to 6 years) it is 2,738 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €368).

If you have more than one child using childcare, you pay full price for the most expensive daycare and half-price for the others.

Some municipalities (kommuner) pay you money if you choose to look after your own child at home after maternity leave.

Frederiksberg Municipality for example pays 8,141 kroner per child per month for looking after children under 3 and 4,198 kroner per month for children over 3.

Parents in Denmark can also receive child and youth benefits (børne- og ungeydelsen), also known as børnepenge. This is a tax-free payment that you receive for each of your children until they reach the age of 18.

For children aged 0-2 years it is 4,653 kroner per quarter (roughly €156 per month per child). For children aged 3-6 years it is 3,681 kroner per quarter (roughly €123 per month per child).

United Kingdom

According to charity Coram in their Childcare Survey 2022, the average cost of full-time nursery is £1,166 (around €1,304 a month), which is even higher in some parts of London. There are some government subsidies available for low-income families and those receiving benefits and every parent is entitled to 15 or 30 free hours of childcare the term after their child turns three years old.

Childcare conclusion

The cost of childcare varies within each country, depending on family circumstances. However, for guaranteed low childcare costs for every parent, Sweden comes out best, with a maximum of €145 a month.

Average monthly cost of state-run childcare:

Sweden: €145 maximum

Norway: €295 maximum

Austria: €72.33 – roughly €500

Spain: €100 – €260 

Germany: €0 –  €368

Denmark: €368 – €573

France: €45,76 – €739.20 

Switzerland: €902 – €2,376 

U.K. €1,304 which reduces the term after the child turns three.

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