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Basel education and international schools guide

Basel may be a bit short on international schools, compared to other cities in the Alps, but a small number of options do exist. Otherwise you can assess the challenges (explained below) and dive into the Swiss state school system.

International schools

These tend to be an extremely popular choice for children of all ages and the best known ones are the English-speaking International School of Basel (ISB) and the bi-lingual English/German SIS Swiss International School Basel. Other schools that teach in both languages are the private primary, ELA Basel (The Swiss British School of Basel) and the tiny Academia International Bilingual Schooloffering A Levels. If you come from outside the region and want your child to board, there is the long-established and highly-regarded Black Forest Academy, just over the border in Germany, which also operates a bus service for Basel families. There is also a French alternative École Francaise de Bale, where children can start aged three months and continue until the age of 11.

These schools all give you the security of a universally recognized education system and qualifications, so you don’t have to panic if you move back home or want another international school abroad.

Due to the small number of  available options, private schools may well have a waiting list so get on it a.s.a.p. to register your child. The main downside of private schooling is that it is very expensive (unless your or your spouse's company pay all or part of the fees, in which case it tends to be a no-brainer for the expat). Another slight drawback is that the school is unlikely to be just down the road, so transport (and its cost) will have to be factored in. Luckily, if you live in Basel, the public transport system is typically Swiss - fast, frequent and punctual.

Kindergartens and Pre-schools

For younger children, there are a number of private kindergartens and pre-schools that operate in a bi-lingual environment (German and English) offering half-day or full day programmes that would provide a friendly and less daunting environment for your child, including Montessori-Brigitte-Kindergarten.

For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Basel considered by expats'.

State schools

Many ex-pats choose the Swiss school system because it has a good reputation and because all neighbourhoods have a school located locally (usually within walking distance). This is great for the school run and also gives you a chance to integrate into the local community, including your child picking up Swiss-German and German,  and obviously a huge added bonus is that they are free.

There are 11 years of compulsory education (usually ending at 15), starting with two years of kindergarten and your child will go to the kindergarten local to where you live. If your pre-kindergarten child has insufficient knowledge of German, they can go to a playgroup where they learn German through play. 

However, unlike in England, children won't start learning to read and write during these first two years. Instead of formal learning, the idea is that kindergarten children are prepared for future learning by doing arts and crafts, basket weaving, singing and playing in classes limited to 20, an introduction that many parents like.

After completion of kindergarten, at age six or seven, pupils start six years of primary school (Primarschule).  Each class has the same teacher for the first three years so it is important that he or she likes your child, otherwise you are pretty much stuck. This is the stage at which children will start learning reading and writing, maths, history & geography (Swiss) and sports (but no school sports teams). A new teacher takes over each class (maximum 25) for years 4-6. French lessons start in the 3rd year and English lessons in the 5th. Do note, some ex-pat parents are concerned about the lack of creativity in the curriculum.

After primary school comes three years of secondary school (Sekundarschule) and this is when pupils are streamed according to ability and achievements. Either A-Zug (standard level), E-Zug (extended level) or P-Zug (high demands). All three levels are in the same school building and there is a quota for how many children are allowed to attend each class, This streaming could be a problem as, by all accounts, there is very little flexibility as regards moving between streams once the teacher's decision has been made.

In primary and secondary school there are either interviews (translators can be involved)  discussing school performance, written school reports or school marks, depending on the age of the children. Children with special needs are, wherever possible, taught in regular classes with supplementary educational support and special state and private schools are also available.

Parents can also participate in the School's Parental Organisation (Elternrat) and, thoughtfully, they also run 'German for Parents' courses, so that you know what's going on at the school. It is common for schools to have weekly informal information letters from the teacher and liaison books for daily feedback, although one parent complained that she found it hard to find out exactly what her children were doing each day, as she did not get a chance to see the teacher at start of school and pick up time.

After secondary school, subject to their level of achievements at school, pupils have the following options:

  • An occupational apprenticeship (Berufslehre), lasting two to four years. 
  • Attending the Professional High School (Fachmaturitätsschule).
  • Attending Gymnasium (High School). This lasts for four years and ends with the Swiss Matura exam and the option to study at a university.

A word on the school run

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Basel is seeing children, even as young as four, walking to and from school on their own! This is a real shock to us Brits but here it is a tradition and it is frowned upon if you don't follow suit. The idea is that children are taught from an early age to be responsible little Swiss citizens - schools even send out encouraging reminders!

They also have sweet little traditions that almost seem to come from another era, such as the wooden carts that are pulled around the neighbourhood, trailed by little classmates, hand in hand, on pupils' birthdays. The birthday girl or boy gets to stay at home in the morning a little bit late and then they are collected by their classmates and pulled back to school, wearing a crown.

As for language...

Firstly note the language of all the lessons in state schools will be Swiss German and written work will be in high German. If your children are coming from a school in England and don't have the foggiest about German, they are certainly going to need extra help but most schools make an immersive 'German as Second Language' programme available. Young children often pick up the language easily but if you have older children, they will be assessed for several weeks before the school decides which year to put them in. 

Even when ex-pat families are happy with state schools, many are concerned that their children are not going to learn proper English spelling and grammar, so most arrange for their children to attend special paid-for classes to learn how to spell, read and write in English. A popular organization providing classes for English speakers in Swiss schools is  Ahead with English based in Therwil.

School hours

The school year starts in the middle of August (usually roasting hot), which seems strange but then they do finish the school year in the middle of June.

School hours are definitely NOT compatible with the hours of two working parents as Swiss state schools don't have a fixed school start and end time each day. Typically they have school in the mornings and then only two afternoons per week  - which change depending on which class, group or activity your child is involved in. Parents with several children can have a nightmare of a time juggling their schedules.

Special arrangements (at cost) can be made for your child to be supervised at the one and a half hour lunch break and provide lunch (normally the parents’ responsibility) and for after school care. However, having lunch with their children and spending some afternoons with them each week appeals to many parents.

Transitions out of the Swiss state system

It is not always particularly straightforward, for example, a particularly bad time to move back to the UK would be when your child is six or seven. In Basel your children would only just be starting to learn reading and writing so would be well behind their peers in the UK (although, of course, with some help or tutoring, they could undoubtedly catch up).

A key factor in making your decision about choosing whether or not to go down the Swiss state school route is really how long you intend to stay in Switzerland. Remember, nowhere else in the world speaks Swiss German except Switzerland and even then it differs slightly from canton to canton. Even some German friends of ours are hard pressed to understand the dialect and one went so far as to describe the language as "a waste of brain capacity!"

The French way out

Of course, in Basel there is one other alternative if you can't find happiness with any of the above options……you can always move over the border to France so that your children can attend the local free French school system (starting from age 3) especially if you have a good command of the French language.

Many ex-pats do end up living just over the border in France- Hegenheim, Hunigue, Hagenthal, St.Louis etc so it's worth looking into if you fancy living there:

See the GSGI article “Working in Basel, living in Alsace”.

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