When you move to Basel with school age children, you have two available routes to go down for education: either the Swiss state school system or, if that's too daunting, you can choose one of the private schools (English-only or bi-lingual).
Swiss state schools
Many ex-pats choose the Swiss school system because it has a good reputation, because all neighbourhoods have a school located locally (usually within walking distance) which is great for the school run (more about that below) and also gives you a chance to integrate into the local community. Plus your children will be exposed to and hopefully pick up Swiss German and German and obviously an added bonus is that they are free.
A word on the school run
… There isn't one! One thing that strikes you when you arrive in Basel is seeing children, even children as young as four years old, 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 letters to parents reminding them that children should walk on their own to kindergarten rather than being escorted.
They also have sweet little traditions that almost seem to come from another era, such as the wooden carts that are pulled around the neighborhood 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 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. Schools will help out arranging this. If you have older children, they will be assessed for several weeks before the school decides which year to put them in.
It's less of a problem if you have young children and they manage to easily pick up the language - of course this will be the case for some children but not all. Some children seem to just manage to pick up the language and settle in, for others it just doesn't work and this will become apparent.
Even when ex-pat families are happy with state schools, many are concerned that their children are not going to learn proper spelling and grammar in English so most arrange for their children to attend special paid-for classes to learn properly how to spell, read and write in English. A popular organization dealing with this in Baselland is 'Ahead with English" based in Therwil. They provide classes for English speakers attending local Swiss schools, several afternoons per week.
The basic state school system looks like this:
Schooling starts with two years of kindergarten and children can enroll, provided they turn 4 before the first of May (this is scheduled to change to July 31st sometime between 2011 and 2016). Your child will go to the kindergarten local to where you live.
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. Many parents like the fact that in kindergarten, children's social skills are developed in a relaxed environment so that when the academic work starts, children will be ready for it. Class sizes are limited to a maximum of 20 children.
The school year starts in the middle of August (when it is usually roasting hot, which seems strange but then they do finish the school year end of June); parents receive registration forms for kindergarten by post in January of that year.
After completion of kindergarten, at age 6 or 7 pupils start primary school (Primarschule). Primary school lasts six years. 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).
Then, a new teacher takes over each class for years 4-6. Maximum class size is 25 children. There is no academic streaming at this stage. French lessons will start in the 3rd year and English lessons will begin in the 5th year. Do note, some ex-pat parents are concerned about the lack of creativity in the curriculum.
After primary school comes secondary school (Sekundarschule) and this is when pupils are streamed according to ability and achievements. Either A-level (A-Zug) (standard level), E-level (E-Zug) (extended level) or P-level (P-Zug) (high demands). This could potentially be problematic for you as there is a risk your child will be put into a stream below what you expect and by all accounts there is very little flexibility as regards moving between streams once the teacher's decision has been made. Secondary school lasts three years.
All three levels are in the same school building. There is a quota for how many children are allowed to attend each class. In primary and secondary school there are either interviews discussing school performance, written school reports or school marks, depending on the age of the children.
Translators can be involved in the interviews discussing school performance as well as during teacher-parent evenings. Parents can also participate in the School's Parental Organisation (Elternrat). It is common for schools to have weekly informal information letters from the teacher and liaison books for daily feedback, although one parents 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).
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.
Special Education Needs
Children and youngsters with special needs are, wherever possible, taught in regular classes with supplementary educational support. Special state and private schools are also available.
Another important factor to mention is school hours. Annoyingly for parents who like a traditional English style school hours, Swiss state schools don't have a fixed school start and end time each day eg 8.30 drop off and 3pm pick up.
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. Schools also have a one and a half hour lunch break but do not provide lunch so it is up to the parents to make arrangements. Definitely NOT compatible with the hours of working parents.
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 lunchtime (and provided with lunch) and for after school care.
However a number of parents comment that they enjoy the opportunity to have lunch with their children and spend some afternoons with them each week as this allows a more relaxed start to their school years, leaving time for other activities and play dates/meeting their friends.
Transitions Out of the Swiss System
What about if you plan to transfer back to the UK or somewhere else? Is it easy to make the transition from Swiss state school to elsewhere? Well, no, it is not particularly straightforward.
For example, a particularly bad time to move back to the UK would be when your child is 6 or 7. 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).
There can be no denying that if you choose to go down the Swiss state school route it will be a challenge. A key factor in making your decision 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!" Swiss German is unlikely to be a very valuable asset if you're likely to be relocating back to the UK or elsewhere after a few years (although a working knowledge of High German might be useful).
If you're not sure that the above is for you, then your other main option is going to one of the private schools.
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 programs that would provide a friendly and less daunting environment for your child at first. A couple of popular choices are Bilingual Montessori Children's House and Kids Camp Pre-School. There are also a small number of english-speaking playgroups. For example see www.lilliput-playgroup.ch.
The GSGI doesn't typically review pre-schools the way we do primary and secondary schools, but we do talk to other expats to get an idea of the ones they choose (or don't). For an informal list of the ones expats tend to like and send their own children to, click here for Basel: Early Years Educational Options for Expats.
It's not quite in the school arena, but while we're discussing the extremely short, you might want to know about Babies and Toddlers in Basel.
For children aged 3 to 18 there are also the extremely popular international schools, the best known ones being the English-speaking International School of Basel (ISB) and the bi-lingual English and German speaking Swiss International School (SIS).
These schools provide a wide-ranging education with focus on developing broadmindedness. They give you the security of a universally recognized education system and qualifications, so you have the freedom in the future to move either back home or to other international schools abroad without major upheavals and transitional problems on the school front. You will also have a fixed drop off and pick up time with lunch catered for.
Remember, private schools may well have a waiting list so you should contact them as early as possible to register your child. The main downside of private schooling is that it is very expensive (unless you are lucky enough to have your or your spouse's company pay your fees or part of your fees in which case it's a no-brainer), plus you probably won't have the convenience of school just down/across the road, so transport will have to be factored in. Not a problem at all if you live in Basel as the public transport system is fantastically frequent and punctual.
Of course, in Basel there is one other option if you can't find happiness with either 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 end up living just over the border in the France- Hegenheim, Hunigue, Hagenthal, St.Louis etc so it's worth looking into if you fancy living there. And to explore that idea, click here to read Working in Basel, Living in Alsace.