Parents with children who do not speak the national language often worry about sending their child to public school in Switzerland. Rest assured that your child will get a lot of support with the language! Public schools offer extra German classes or even intensive courses for free.
Age does matter to an extent. At a younger age kids tend to pick up and integrate much faster. Older children will struggle more initially but I have seen many cases of older children becoming rapidely fluent in the national language and making great progress at their local school.
Being in the local area also helps your children to make friends and become more self-reliant.
Ultimately, your schooling decision will depend on what works best for you as a family. Here are some of the questions Expat parents should ask themselves before settling on a particular school option.
All different types of school have pros and cons. If you are in Switzerland for the longer term, local schools can be an excellent choice. Public schools in Switzerland are well resourced and offer the best integration for your children. Private bilingual or English-language international schools provide a ready made school community for parents and children and might offer a more creative approach to teaching and learning. Even if your child is only little, you should consider the educational outcomes of the different options as moving children between different school types can prove to be challenging! Read more in my blog ‘5 reasons why you shouldn’t wait too long if you want to move your child from a private to a state school: Local, bilingual or international school?
Unlike in other countries, the use of school league tables or ranking is uncommon in Switzerland. Swiss state schools are considered to be good quality and Swiss parents will generally assume that the local school in the neighbourhood is offering a high standard of education. You will also find very little information on individual schools online. The more progressive schools might have a website but this is not the norm! So, asking other parents on social media platforms or expat websites can be a big help.
Keep in mind that experiences are very personal and performance might very much depend on the make-up of the class and the teacher. In Switzerland, teachers are far more autonomous than their counterparts in other countries and there is little standartisation across schools, although this is slowly changing. So the ‘quality’ of the school can vary a lot depending on the teacher in question. Read more about some of the challenges when selecting a school: Finding a good public school in Switzerland
Swiss public schools are regarded as among the best public schools worldwide. This might be the reason why 90% of all parents sent their children to a public school in Switzerland (even those who can easily afford to pay private school fees!). Swiss public schools offer relatively small class sizes, well-resourced classrooms and highly qualified teachers. It is not a coincidence that Swiss students are the best at maths in Europe! There are valid reasons to choose a private school over a local public school but academic quality should not be a concern!
In Switzerland, you can not freely choose a public school or apply for different schools listing your order of preference. You child will be allocated to a primary school in the neighborhood, usually the school that is either in walking distance or near your house. However, if you live in a bigger city like Zürich or if there are two or more public schools located in your neighborhood or village, allocation might not just be determined by distance but also by the number of available spaces and the gender and nationalities mix. In some cases this might lead to a situation where children living in the same street are allocated to two different schools.
There are some things you should know for a smooth start in local school:
1.) Dealing with cultural differences
Some norms and traditions in local Swiss schools might seem very strange to you. If you feel uncomfortable about something, let the teacher know about it, but avoid criticising her. A much better way is to tell her that you are not used to how things are done here (do not say that things are done better where you come from!) and that they explain to you so that you may better understand.
2.) Communicating with the teacher.
If you are used to a close relationship with the teacher and regular updates about your child’s progress, you might be in for a surprise. Swiss teachers do not usually give feedback outside of parent-teacher meetings. However, you will get a good idea about overall academic performance in primary classes, as children bring regularly test results home for you to sign. If you have any concerns about grades or the wellbeing of your child you can always approach a teacher. Just do not expect the teacher to come to you unless they have some very serious concerns.
3.) Teacher feedback.
While teachers in Switzerland are happy to praise good behaviour, they are also quick to point out any shortcomings. Do not take it personally! Even model students in Swiss schools might get reprimanded for little things. Some teachers still believe that this is an effective way to help a student to improve their ways.
Do you want to know more about how local Swiss school works?
Kindergarten (4-6yrs) starts with half days, usually 4-5 half days. Depending on the canton, times can be 8.20-11.30am or a combination of mornings and one afternoon, usually from 1.30-4.00pm.
Primary school starts with 5 mornings, starting usually around 8am and 1-2 afternoons. In the last two years of the 6 grades in primary, children will be in school every afternoon, which shorter and longer days (between 3pm-4.30pm).
Except for days schools in bigger cities such as Zurich, lunch is not provided by school and children either have lunch home or in one of the lunch clubs and after- school care facilities that can be found almost everywhere.
Wednesdays are always short days until 11.30-12am.
In lower secondary and higher secondary, the school day usually goes from 7.30 or later until 4 and some days even 5pm.
Higher secondary schools (Gymnasiums) normally offer a school cantina.
Yes, all public schools up to year 12 are free.
Additionally, parents of children attending primary and lower secondary school do not need to worry about buying books as these are provided by school. School normally also give out notbooks and stationary, so all children really need is a school bag and gym clothes!
Yes, public Kindergarten (from 4 years onwards!) is considered part of school and paid for by the state.
Nurseries and pre-schools for children under 4 are run privately and can be very expensive. In most places, expect to pay at least 100 Francs per day!
Homeschooling regulations strongly vary among cantons. Whereas some cantons allow homeschooling, other require parents to have a recognised teacher qualification and others simply ban it. In those cantons, that allow homeschooling, this is still regarded as a personal choice as thus not subsidised by the state. Homeschooling parents can not hope to get paid for their own teaching time or that of a external teacher and usually also have to cover all related costs.
2 years of public Kindergarten are part of compulsory school in most cantons. (In a few cantons e.g. Zug, only one year is compulsory). Normally. children turning 4 either in spring (e.g. Zug) or by the 31st of July (most cantons) will have to attend public Kindergarten in the summer of that year. It is not possible to take out children during the term, expect in very exceptional circumstances.