Public School in Switzerland

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash Hopscotch made with chalk

On a cold February day in 2013, we arrived to Switzerland with a 2nd grader and very limited knowledge about the Swiss public school system. Our first introduction was a visit to the city’s school office to ask if we could visit the various elementary schools in the area. They were very quick to inform us that you don’t get to choose your public school. The city’s school department makes that decision. This veteran teacher was not super comfortable with that answer, so I made it my mission to figure out this completely “foreign” public education system.

Fast forward seven years and our daughter is now 15 years old and just signed a contract for an apprenticeship. It has been a bumpy, yet educational, road watching her get to this point. We started out attending every possible class that explained the school system offered by the Canton. While these information sessions have been useful, I’ve also been lucky to have many friends with older children who have shared their wonderful wisdom and filled in the gaps. It has been quite amazing watching their children take their own unique paths and successfully come out on the other side. Their paths illustrate the incredible variety of opportunities available to students such as attending a professional ballet school at the age of 15 to graduating from Gymnasium and jumping right into medical school.

There are many paths available to students in the Swiss system (I’m speaking from experience only in the German speaking region). But there are some key moments where decisions need to be made and the facts need to be known.

Swiss Schooling Terminology

Primarschule - Primary School - grades 1-6

Oberstufe or Sekundarschule (Sek) - Middle school - grades 7-9

Gymnasium (Gymi) - Elite high school including specialized schools in the areas of sports and art - grades 7-12, 9-12 or 10-13 (I know, it’s confusing)

Fachmittelschule - Subject based high school options including Business, IT,  - grades 9-12 or 10-13

Lehrstelle - Apprenticeship - grades 10-12/13

Berufs Maturitäte (BMS) - High school diploma course - grades 10-12/13 or after finishing an apprenticeship

Hochfachschule - College in which an undergraduate degree can be earned

Passerelle - This test allows students who have completed their BMS to attend university

Important Time Frames to Keep in Mind

5th grade - conversation starts with teacher: Gymi or Sek?

6th grade - decision on Sek placement (A, B, or C) and/or take the Langzeit Gymi test

7th grade - Called 1st Sek (A, B, C) or Langzeit Gymi, parents attend classes at the BIZ (Job Information Center)

8th grade - In 2nd Sek, students start visiting possible Lehrstellen, creating their resume and cover letters, take classes at the BIZ, take the Handelsmittelschule test (one of the Fachschule options), or have the opportunity to take the Gymi test again.

9th grade - Apply for Lehrstellen, take the Gymi test, and/or take the BMS/Fachschule test

10th grade - Gymi, Lehrstelle (with or without BMS), or Fachschule

If you want more detailed information, you can check out the City of Zurich’s website.

The best part about this system, in my opinion, is that there is a path for most students and a corrective path if something doesn’t go their way at some point. Take for instance getting into Gymi which is such a huge topic for those of us that don’t understand the Lehrstelle system. When we arrived in Switzerland, I truly believed that Gymi was the only option for our daughter because it’s the only path that looks similar to the school system I was used to. Is Gymi the only option? Absolutely not. In fact, it is only a good option for very few.

The Swiss system works to create trained individuals for all levels of the workforce. This means that about 20% of the population goes to Gymi. In some Cantons, there is a very difficult test that one must pass to enter and in others, it is a combination of your grades and teacher recommendations. Every Canton has a different formula for entrance, but the 20% threshold is  still maintained.

In order to calm my nerves, I found it very helpful to understand the paths available after primary school other than Gymi. The focus for this section will be Sek A, Sek B. I am not including Sek C in this graph as it is typically a very specialized situation in which families work directly with the school and is therefore, very personalized.

The city of Zurich has a graph they’ve put together to illustrate the paths after Sek, but I find it a bit difficult to read and full of more information than needed. Therefore, I’ve put one together that makes more sense to me.

As you can see, there are so many options for our children as they move through the Swiss public system. This can be a relief for some and overwhelming for others. My biggest advice is to attend every possible parent meeting and parent class about the subject. Regardless of your level of German, most information can be found in multiple languages.

In addition to taking classes, it also helped me to join parent groups on Facebook and ask questions as they came up. Ask questions of local friends that can tell you about their child’s experiences. Ask questions, search for answers, and most of all, let your child sit behind the wheel.

We are here to be supportive during this time in their lives as they make some of their first big life decisions. There will be many more significant decisions to come, so it is our job to help them understand all the options and encourage them to forge their own path. Creating a supportive yet informed decision making process will set your child up for a great high school experience while also preparing them for life.    

Disclaimer: This should not be used as a definitive guide to the Swiss public schools. This post is based on our experience and my research over the past nine years of living in Switzerland. Please connect with your local school authorities for the most up to date information.

If you'd like to read further about this topic, I'd recommend reading Going Local: your guild to Swiss schooling by Margaret Oertig and Marc Locatelli.