Between compulsory education, vocational paths and cantonal differences, the Swiss education system may be somewhat difficult to navigate for an expat who has just arrived in the country. Here is an overview of what to expect.
It should be noted that compulsory education is available free to the public in Switzerland and 95% of children are enrolled. Private schools with similar curricula exist, but are expensive.
Compulsory education: 11 years including both primary and secondary cycles
Following harmonisation among most cantons1, compulsory education spans 11 years, divided into primary and secondary cycles.
The primary cycle lasts eight years and its format can vary from canton to canton. For the first two years, cantons may choose between kindergarten or pre-school.
Pre-school (or kindergarten) normally begins at age four and lasts for two years. Children then follow the six-year primary education curriculum which remains relatively general with language learning (mainly the language spoken on a daily basis and basic learning of a second national language), mathematics, history, geography and civics classes.
Once these eight years are completed, the child (generally around 12 years old) enters the compulsory three-year secondary cycle (except in Ticino where it is a four-year cycle). This step marks the change from primary to secondary school and provides the setting for more long-term learning objectives.
More commonly known in some cantons as the "orientation cycle" this school curriculum does not end with a final exam. Students are guided according to their preferences, observed skills and school reports.
Post-compulsory education lies somewhere between general education and an apprenticeship
At the end of compulsory schooling, adolescents (usually 15 years old) can opt for a form of general education called collège, gymnasium or lycée depending on the canton, or a more vocational training that serves as a pathway to the labour market, e.g. an apprenticeship.
General education courses of three or four years are considered bridges to tertiary education (universities or colleges). They end with a final exam called Maturité (‘Matu’), or Maturität in German.
Parallel courses such as those offered by the general education schools (ECG/EFZ/AFC) offer similar outcomes with a four-year specialised Swiss Maturity Certificate and openings to continue training in work-study programmes at the Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS).
Initial vocational training or apprenticeships can last from two to four years and are completed with a Swiss Federal Certificate of Competence (CFC).
Armed with a CFC, a student can still obtain a professional degree with a few bridging courses and additional individual effort.
Once a professional degree has been obtained, access to tertiary education is the same as for gymnasium and specialised pathways.
Maturité or CFC is the 14- or 15-year basic education curriculum that prepares students for tertiary education or the labour market.
The uniqueness of the Swiss system lies in the quality of the apprenticeship programme and the option of pursuing studies in any field. This type of training attracts many students and serves as a springboard for a career with prospects that are more compartmentalised in other countries.
Ueli Maurer, Federal Councillor since 2008 and President of the Confederation in 2019, completed a commercial apprenticeship.
Sergio Ermotti, CEO of the UBS Group, holds an apprenticeship as a basic training course
The academic grading system
While some countries use letters, others use marks out of 10, 20 or 100, Switzerland uses a 6-point grading scale.
Generally speaking, the approach is not purely Cartesian since 3 does not represent the average. The passing grade is set at 4.
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