Public School in Switzerland
If you’ve recently moved to Switzerland and have school-aged children, you’re most likely feeling overwhelmed with the stark differences in the public school system. It can be difficult — particularly for those who have children with unique learning needs. This is my story, and the most important terms, time frames, and advice I’ve learned along the way.
On a cold February day in 2013, we arrived in 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. As a veteran teacher, I 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 were useful, I was also lucky to have many friends with older children share their wonderful wisdom. 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, graduating from Gymnasium, and jumping right into medical school.
There are many paths available to students in the German-speaking region of Switzerland. There are also key moments where decisions must be made, and facts must be known. Let’s start by defining some important terminology:
Swiss Schooling Terminology
Berufs Maturitäte (BMS): High school diploma course, grades 10-12/13 or after finishing an apprenticeship
Kanton: State. There are 26 states in Switzerland
Fachmittelschule: Subject-based high school options including business and IT, grades 9-12 or 10-13
Fachschule: Subject-based school
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)
Handelsmittelschule: Business high school
Hochfachschule: College in which students can earn an undergraduate degree
Langzeit Gymi: Elite high school that begins in 7th grade
Lehrstelle: Apprenticeship, grades 10-12/13
Oberstufe or Sekundarschule (Sek): Middle school, grades 7-9
Passerelle: Test allowing students who have completed their BMS to attend university
Primarschule: Primary school, grades 1-6
As your child moves through school, they’ll hit grade-level milestones where they’ll decide which direction to go. Here’s what to expect:
Swiss School Decision & Testing Time Frames
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 (1st Sek A, B, or C or Langzeit Gymi): Parents attend classes at the BIZ (Job Information Center)
8th grade (2nd Sek): Students visit possible Lehrstellen, create their resume and cover letters, take classes at the BIZ, take the Handelsmittelschule test (one of the Fachschule options), or retake the Gymi test.
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
For more detailed information, 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.
Getting into Gymi is such a huge topic for those of us who 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 looked 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. In others, it is a combination of grades and teacher recommendations. Every Canton has a different formula for entrance, but the 20% threshold is still maintained.
Helpful Tips to Navigate Swiss Schools
1. Create a visual
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 and Sek B. I am not including Sek C 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 to illustrate the paths after Sek, but I find it a bit difficult to read and full of more information than needed.
I’ve put one together for Sek A that makes more sense to me:
2. Look for support
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, you can find most information in multiple languages.
In addition to taking classes, it also helped me to hear from other parents. Join parent groups on Facebook and ask questions as they came up. Speak to local friends that can tell you about their child’s experiences. Read books, like Going Local: your guide to Swiss schooling by Margaret Oertig and Marc Locatelli.
Ask questions everywhere, search for answers, and most of all, let your child sit behind the wheel.
We are here to be supportive during this time in our children’s lives as they make some of their first big life decisions. There will be many more significant decisions to come, so our job is 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.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed or need help navigating the system for a child with additional learning needs, I can help! Contact me for a consultation.
Disclaimer: This should not be used as a definitive guide to Swiss public schools. This post is based on our experience and my research over the past nine years living in Switzerland. Please connect with your local school authorities for the most up-to-date information.
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