A lot of emphasis is placed on education in Switzerland. Swiss public schools have a good reputation, and the country's private boarding and international schools are exceptional. But while expat children will undoubtedly receive an excellent education, schooling, just like most things in the country, can be eye-wateringly expensive.
Public schools in Switzerland
Most residents, including foreigners, attend public schools in Switzerland. They’re funded by taxes and attendance is free, but they’re managed at the level of cantons (states) – so there are regional differences.
Children can be taught in French, German, Italian or Romansch depending on where they live, and will usually have classes in a second official language and English.
There are four stages of schooling – kindergarten, primary, secondary (split into two phases), and tertiary education.
Most children start their two years of kindergarten at age four, even if they don't legally have to. Primary school usually lasts for six years, with lower secondary school generally lasting three. Primary school and Secondary I are compulsory everywhere, but the mandatory starting age and how long each stage takes differs in each canton.
The language barrier means that public schools are best suited to expats moving to Switzerland for the long term and who want to fully integrate into Swiss culture and society. Speaking an official language is an advantage, and younger children often adapt the fastest. Schools make some provisions for foreign language speakers, but this can entail intensive language classes, and in some cases, repeating a year.
Working parents with younger children will likely find Swiss public school hours inconvenient. The day typically ends before 4pm, and students go home for lunch at some schools. Others charge for supervised lunch hours and after-hours day care.
Private schools in Switzerland
Private schools in Switzerland usually come attached with exorbitant fees, but they're also highly regarded. Exclusive Swiss boarding schools, in particular, have prestigious international reputations. These institutions generally offer a stimulating, personalised environment with smaller class sizes and state-of-the-art facilities.
These private schools typically offer the Swiss curriculum.
Bilingual schools in Switzerland
Bilingual schools in Switzerland teach the Swiss curriculum, but lessons are presented evenly in two languages, such as German/English, French/English or German/French. The language combination will depend on the school’s location and is likely to include the language dominant in that particular region.
Parents should research carefully before making a choice – some schools have mostly local students and others cater to a more international student body. Schools with more international students tend to have high turnover rates.
International schools in Switzerland
Some expats prefer sending their children to international schools in Switzerland, despite the high quality of its public and private schools. In these schools, students only staying in the country for the short term get to continue their home country’s language and curriculum.
Most large cities have day schools or boarding schools, but options in rural areas may be limited. Competition for places is fierce, and the most prestigious schools have long waiting lists. Expats should apply early and consider alternatives.
International schools often charge hefty fees, so expats may want to try to negotiate an education allowance into their employment contract.
Special-needs education in Switzerland
Pupils with special educational needs will, as well as possible within the regular classroom, have their needs met in Switzerland. Mainstream schools in Switzerland recognise that all children are different, be it because of their abilities, learning style, rate of development, their preferences or beliefs. Swiss schools aim to support those children with special educational needs so that all children are able to integrate into and participate in society.
Special-needs education, which is set down in law, applies to affected children from birth to their 20th birthday. It gives them the right to special schooling and support from specialists. Children with disabilities often attend regular schools in Switzerland, on a full-time or part-time basis.
Tutoring in Switzerland
Tutoring is a valuable tool to assist students in their education, particularly expat children adapting to a new environment, language and curriculum. Even for children in international schools, tutoring is useful for gaining confidence, or for assistance in particular subjects such as maths, science or French. Good companies in Switzerland include Tutorsplus and Tutor24.
►For city-specific schooling, see Education and Schools in Zurich
"My children attend a private, bilingual school. I love it but it was an adjustment. How to approach teachers, what was expected from the kids, grading scales, helping them negotiate new friendships, all things we are still figuring out."
Find out more about American expat Jennifer's family life in Switzerland in our interview.
Are you an expat living in Switzerland?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Switzerland. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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