Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Once upon a time, I was a Swiss school skeptic! Like many expats, my definition of an excellent academic program was not reflected in the structure and timeline of the Swiss system. However, in the 11 years since my children began attending public school in the canton of Zug, our experiences and observations have turned my favor. So here I am, ready to share with you - what I have learned about the Swiss education system, what I would do differently, and the mental shifts that not only helped me but my kids as well.
Becoming aware of biased perspectives …
In my home country, educational success is highlighted by academic rigor and early preparation - factors that are expected to lead to greater career and higher education opportunities. With this filter securely affixed, I couldn't understand the delayed academic start for children here in Switzerland. While my friends back in Australia were focused on early literacy and mathematical competency for their four and five-year-old children, in Switzerland children don’t even begin academic training until 1st class (at the age of 6 or 7). So, when my eldest began Kindergarten - and I quickly realized that it was all about play and developing independence, not about learning to read, write, add, or subtract - I panicked!
By the time my daughter entered Swiss kindergarten, she had already attended three years of English-speaking pre-school, and if I am honest, I thought going to Kindergarten was going to be a big old waste of time. The half-day schedule and the notion that she wouldn’t learn to read or write had me convinced that I had to get her in and out of Kindergarten and into ‘real’ school as quickly as possible.
What I didn’t realize was that while it might seem that kindergarteners in Switzerland have their academic careers on hold, as they play in the doll's corner and sing songs in a circle, they are actually busy filling their backpack with essential skills. Skills that are unfortunately often overshadowed by academic learning for children attending academic focused early education programs. Children in Swiss schools spend their kindergarten years learning about independence, personal-responsibility, and important social skills, each of which establishes a solid foundation for a positive schooling experience.
In our personal experience, pushing our child to start school and miss a year of Kindergarten meant her backpack was only half full of the skills she would need to be successful in school. She then went on to suffer, first socially and then academically, and ended up repeating third grade. We had to learn the hard way that - earlier isn’t always better!
Married to my Australian philosophy of early academics, I had felt such a rush to kick-start my child’s education in the early days of our Swiss experience that I didn't take a moment to consider what that would mean for my children down the road. For example, starting school a year early would mean, if she hadn't repeated third grade, my daughter would already, at age 15, be in her apprenticeship. Now that I have a teenager I am grateful to slow time down!
Making necessary mental shifts…
My inability to have an open mind, regarding the Swiss school system, caused much unnecessary turmoil. I often compared the Swiss public schools to my own educational experiences and constantly questioned how they were run and the rationale for their educational pedagogy. Not only was I experiencing stress, but my kids could feel it too. Instead of enjoying the opportunity to learn and grow in a new way we felt stuck and frustrated.
Before I hit my breaking point, I decided to make a change, recognizing that letting go and looking at the positives of the system could only improve our experience. Sure things would be different if we were living in Australia but I realized the value of accepting and trusting my new home and its educational philosophy. Whenever I doubted the system, I reminded myself to look ahead. Switzerland is a thriving country, so their unique school system must work. I learned to trust their methods and take it easy. And if by magic, when I started to trust, my stress levels plummeted and my kids seemed happier and more successful in school.
Everyone finds his or her path…
The fact that there isn’t one correct or best route in the Swiss schooling system resulted in most of my sleepless nights. Unlike in Australia, where almost everyone takes a similar path, here in Switzerland, there is a maze of routes to get students to their desired future profession.
Once I understood this and believed in its worth, after watching my Swiss nephews (who are all older than my kids), taking their own unique paths, my anxiety began to ease. Yes, compulsory schooling finishes here after the 9th Grade, but in reality, it is just the beginning - from there students can take many different routes to reach their goals. Everyone seems to find his or her path eventually, and choosing one path doesn't mean you can't go down another in the future.
I often wonder what my eldest daughter’s school journey would have been like if we had been patient. But in the end, even with her having to repeat third grade, everything has turned out just the way it should: she is a happy and well-adjusted fifteen-year-old, excited to apply for an apprenticeship. In the end, that extra year was a gift and we are making sure to take our time with our youngest who will begin school this year.
Looking back and moving forward…
My adjustment to the Swiss education wasn’t always easy and I want to be clear that I still feel that the Swiss public school system is not perfect. The truth is all school systems have strengths and weaknesses because while most do their best to address individual student needs, they are still designed to educate entire populations with diverse needs, skills, backgrounds, and goals. With that being said, since those early days of questioning, I have realized that there are many things that, while different than my previous expectations of education, the Swiss really do right when it comes to helping children grow into intelligent, educated, happy and well-adjusted adults.
Originally from Australia, Kristin Reinhard has fallen hard for Switzerland, and has called the land of chocolate and cheese home for over half of her life. She wears many hats including photographer, writer, mother and food lover and combines them all over on her blog Swiss Family Travel.