One of the biggest decisions parents make in the lives of their children is choice of schools, and that decision can be made all the more difficult by a move abroad. For a start there will be less choice and one will have to learn to compromise.
However, for a small city such as Geneva (the Canton only has a population of less than 500,000), there are a number of private schools that offer English language programmes. Some parents opt for the local Swiss state system, while there are also private schools offering the Swiss, French and German based curricula as well as special Saturday schools for Japanese, Korean, Greek, Russian and Arabic speakers, to name a few.
Many ex-pats come to Geneva believing that the level of education their children can look forward to receiving will be some of the best in the world (it must be all those stories of Swiss boarding and finishing schools we’ve read). Unfortunately the reality can be somewhat different, particularly for those parents and children used to private schools in the UK and US. Thankfully there is one exception to this at primary level, the Geneva English School (taking pupils from age 3), which has been around for over 50 years and is the closest you will get to a classic British prep school in terms of level and type of education and curriculum - although don’t expect traditional uniform.
Geneva English School
The most popular choice for English speakers is the Geneva English School (or GES). Housed in a beautiful old manor house with large grounds and beautiful views of Mont Blanc and the lake, it is an idyllic setting for a Primary School (the Secondary School is now located elsewhere in the Genthod area as of September 2017). This is the only school where you will find a real sense of community, a family atmosphere and decent sports facilities.
It is a small school with around 245 pupils aged 3 to 12 now the new Year 7 is open. The school bases its teaching on the British curriculum, but is flexible and incorporates an understanding of the local surroundings. Reflecting this, French is given a strong emphasis throughout the school. The fact that nearly every child is English mother tongue means that pupils follow a more academic syllabus right from the start, because there are few language barriers to the learning process.Although it has a large percentage of British and American parents, there are many other nationalities represented, giving more of an international feel.
Until recently the school was parent run through an association, although now it has a traditional Board of Governors this still includes parents as well as education professionals, whilst the Headteacher is in charge of the day to day management of the school. This adds to the community feeling within the school as parents feel they have some control over their children's education. Given the popularity of the school, there are waiting lists for most age groups, but don’t let that put you off - it is worth waiting for a place. Fees are less than other International Schools and there are no hidden costs.
GES is a traditional British school in that children are put into one of four houses, which encourages competition, built on team work, and gives them a sense of belonging. It is often commented upon by teachers at the La Chataigneraie campus of the International School of Geneva (the most popular school that GES feeds into) that you can spot a GES child because they are well behaved and study hard. This is very true: GES children are extremely happy, self disciplined individuals who are eager to learn and have high moral values.
The International School of Geneva (Ecolint)
The largest and oldest educational institution offering an English language curriculum is the International School of Geneva (Ecolint for short) and is the choice of many expats. Beware, school fees are huge and there are many hidden extras.
The International School of Geneva is truly an international school with over 130 different nationalities and nearly 100 mother tongues across three campuses. Many parents work for the UN, government missions, NGOs, international organisations and multi-national companies, while a growing number of Swiss take advantage of this opportunity to give their children an international education. Although this gives the children a true understanding of multiculturalism, it can impact on the learning environment when a large proportion of the class does not have English or French mother tongue. There is plenty of ESL for non-English speakers, but native English speaking parents who expect a British-style education need to be aware that the Ecolint schools are different because of the international curricula followed in the different campuses.
Many believe that the curriculum doesn’t catch up with the UK until the IB Diploma programme begins at age 16 (the exception being the La Chataigneraie campus that follows the IGCSE program from Year 11). The heads may be willing to move children up a year if they are academically way ahead, but parents should make it clear from the start that this is what they want. Children returning or moving to the UK will require tutoring in order to pass the Common Entrance or other tests required for entry into private and some state schools. Parents will have to organise this for themselves and it can be difficult to find appropriate tutors. The International School does, however, follow the highly respected International Baccalaureate Diploma for students aged 16-18 and achieves much better than average results. This is quite an achievement as the schools are totally non-selective academically.
A large number of British and American parents will be disappointed with the lack of sports facilities, but that is true of all schools in Geneva. Limited space plays a factor, but the governing board is working on a sports policy for all three campuses and the situation is improving, but nothing to the level of UK or US schools.
All sites have extensive transport services, albeit very expensive ones. This is a good thing as car parking facilities are very limited at both the urban campuses of La Grande Boissiere and Nations. For working parents, all campuses offer extensive and well supervised after-school activities - at a price, you need to speak with the co-ordinator to find out what is available.
All three campuses have special needs teachers for children who have mild to moderate learning difficulties. However, in the last few years an Extended Support Programme for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties was created first at Nations, then expanded to include La Grande Boissiere and La Chataigneraie - the first of its kind in the region for Anglophone students. This has made a huge difference to a number of parents who have children with special educational needs (who tend not to be catered for within the Swiss state system).
The sheer size of Ecolint means that there is a wide range of activities taking place across the three campuses throughout the year, including summer schools. The schools play host to major inter-school sporting competitions and other international schools’ festivals so families are often asked to house overseas students. All three campuses have very active Parent Teacher Associations and there are a number of opportunities for parents who enjoy organising events.
It is important that parents take some time to understand the different curricula choices offered at the three schools and select the school on that criteria rather than base the decision purely on location and then find that the curriculum offered isn’t what they expected. Huge emphasis is placed on language skills, so there are English, French and bi-lingual options at La Grande Boissiere and La Chataigneraie campuses, while Nations is Anglophone. There is also an opportunity for many children to take extra-curricular lessons in their own mother tongue.
In the past, the International School has experienced quite a high turnover of pupils given the international nature of the parents. Parents should be aware that this can be very disruptive for long term students who see friends come and go frequently. However, this problem seems to have slowed down recently with families spending longer in Geneva. On the whole, Ecolint turns out well-educated, happy students who are comfortable with themselves and ready to move on to tertiary education around the world.
La Grande Boissiere Campus
The oldest and largest of the three campuses is La Grande Boissiere (or LGB as it is known locally) with over 1,900 students aged 3 to 18. Located in pleasant grounds in urban Geneva, the school is easily accessible by local transport and generally serves the international community on the left bank, or southern part, of Geneva.
There are three separate schools serving different age groups: Primary (ages 3 to 9), Middle (ages 10 to 13) and Secondary (ages 14 to 18). Despite its urban location, the campus has a peaceful atmosphere with an artificial football pitch, basketball courts and even a special running circuit for students to let off steam. If security is a concern, parents should be aware that because of its location many older students go into Geneva (often Starbucks) during lunchtimes and study periods.
Campus des Nations
The newest and smallest of the Ecolint campuses is Nations which opened in September 2005 with around 750 pupils and is now at capacity with 1,000. It has two sites near the Palais des Nations; the Pregny site (opposite the US Mission) now houses the Early Childhood Centre for children aged 3 to 7 and Saconnex (opposite the International Labour Organisation) offers education for students aged 8 to 19.
Nations very much serves the international community who work at the UN, governmental and non-governmental organisations and Country Missions. Situated in the area around the UN and international organisations, neither of the sites has much outdoor play area, although Saconnex, being purpose built, now houses a brand new gymnasium, an all weather pitch and basketball court. It is the only campus to offer all four International Baccalaureate curricula: PYP,MYP, IB Diploma and the new IB Career-related programme.
La Chataigneraie Campus
La Chataigneraie campus (or La Chat as it is known) lies in the Canton of Vaud. Located in the countryside, it is the most attractive of the three campuses and enjoys the most extensive grounds and sports facilities (including an all-weather football pitch and a state of the art sports hall) and the best parking and drop-off areas - although access is a problem because the local Mairie won't let parents use certain access roads. Generally it serves the right bank, or northern part of Geneva as well as parts of the neighbouring canton of Vaud.
La Chat is closest of the three campuses to a British style education and is therefore the choice of many British parents. It is the only campus where students can take IGCSE’s, making entry into British School sixth forms and universities easier. The campus is currently home to around 1,550 students thanks to the the new and luxurious Primary School, opened in September 2011.
Institut International de Lancy
Parents committed to the British National Curriculum should look at the Institut International de Lancy(known locally as IIL) which has an English Language section for ages 3-18. Although originally a French Catholic girls boarding school when founded in 1903, it now has a French section following the French national curriculum through to the French Baccalaureate, but the majority of the 1,400 students are in the English section, which opened with just Reception and Year 1 in 2001.
The school adheres strictly to the British Curriculum (official name: National Curriculum of England) and does not take into account its Swiss location nor easy access to international organisations. There isn't much mixing between the French and English sections - you can easily spot those in the English section from their uniforms,even in the Secondary School. The Secondary School is able to offer IGCSEs and the IB Diploma, although the subjects offered are limited when compared with Ecolint.
Its urban location means that there is only a small play area and little sports facilities except for a gymnasium. For working parents there is an extensive transport system and the school is well served by public transport. Students are allowed to stay to do prep in a monitored environment and there are extra-curricular activities - but these come at a price. For those who want to be involved, there is an active parents association.
College du Leman
For those parents who want a more American style curriculum, you may wish to look at College du Leman. It has been owned by Nord Anglia for two years (it was previously part of the US Meritas Group hence it feels more like an American school and is favoured by the American community)and has over 2,000 pupils aged 3 to 19, about 10% of whom are boarders (boarding for boys and girls is now available from age 8 in the new primary boarding house). The American High School Diploma and APs have been the favoured qualification for expatriates, but the school has been offering the IB Diploma for the last few years, as well as IGCSEs, the Swiss Maturite and French Bacaulaureate. Both the overseas and local Swiss students tend to come from very privileged backgrounds.
College-Lycee International de Ferney-Voltaire
Some families, particularly those living in the French frontalier region, opt for the College-Lycee International which is just over the French border,from Geneva, in Ferney Voltaire. It offers limited tuition in English, but students can take some GCSEs as they work towards the French Baccalaureate International Option. Although this is a much cheaper option than the private schools and these days rarely an option for those living in Geneva canton, one must take into account that this is the French state system and many international students are forced to re-do a year because of their lower level of French. In addition, the IOB French Baccalaureate is not for the faint hearted as the English content (worth the equivalent of two A levels) is taken in addition to the French subjects.
Another Swiss private school following the French Bac system is Florimont, which also offers the Swiss Maturite and started offering the IB Diploma in 2014, in French. They provide assistance to Anglophone students, but parents should note that it is a very academically orientated school and non-native French speakers tend to struggle. It is also considered the school of choice amongst the Geneva elite.
British School of Geneva
For those children who would struggle with the demands of the French and International Baccalaureates, there is now the British School of Geneva which offers a limited number of subjects at A Level. All students need to be fluent in English to take these courses, fees are much lower than other private schools, but the results have not been particularly good. In September 2010 they expanded to offer a British education to a small number of 11-16 year olds with the opportunity of taking Excel IGCSEs and in September 2011 they opened a Primary section following the English National Curriculum. Note that the use of British in the name, does not indicate any affiliation with nor accreditation by the British department of education nor British Council nor Embassy.
The Swiss State System
Parents who don’t have assistance with school fees may choose the local Swiss State system, but the quality of schools varies enormously. The Primary schools in the Terre Sante region in Vaud (villages of Mies, Tannay, Commugny, Coppet and Founex included) are considered to be the best, while it is difficult to recommend many in the Canton of Geneva. All schools offer non-French speakers “welcome lessons” to improve their French, but again these vary in quality. Education in Switzerland is obligatory from age 6 to 15, but some primary schools will accept children from 4 years. The quality of the Secondary schools and system in Geneva is perhaps reflected in the fact that many wealthy Swiss opt for the private system in the first 3 years (known as Le Cycle). It should also be noted that entry into UK universities is more difficult with the Swiss Maturite exam than other European leaving school qualifications.
Other Private Schools
There are other private schools in Geneva that although may claim to have an English curriculum, are mainly for Swiss locals who want their children to speak good English, not the other way around. One primary school that is quite popular with the UN set, being located in that area is Ecole la Decouverte.
For the Under Five Set
For nursery aged children, some Montessori schools have an English section; the Bell One World Nursery School which has an English based curriculum takes children from 2 ½ years. A number of the schools listed above also now have a nursery class. Otherwise there are the local Garderies and Jardins des Enfants where young children will experience French immersion.
All the private schools listed above now include flexible after school activities programmes which are very professionally run, but expensive.
In addition, there are many after-school activities provided by the communes and the state, remember it is the communes and cantons that provide sports facilities not schools. You will find that most communes have a tennis and football club, while rugby is available in Nyon and Geneva. The commune and canton run activities are generally very reasonable; they also offer non-sporting activities from art to martial arts and even circus school! It is an excellent way for children to improve their French language skills.
Horse riding is very popular with the Swiss, but much cheaper over the border in France. There are many private dancing schools offering everything from classical ballet to hip hop. For the Brits there is even cricket. If your children (and you) are struggling with French, there are soccer lessons in English, though it is much better to do it in your commune particularly if your child is at an international school, so that they can make local friends and improve their French language skills. In other words, it is very easy for parents to overdo the extra curricular activities (and they do) although in the main they come at a price. Private tutoring is very difficult to find and one is probably best-served asking the school to recommend a tutor.