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Schools in SwitzerlandSuddenly relocating back to the UK? Little children milling around your ankles and big children to find school places for? How do you manage if you are relocating from Switzerland to England? What is the transition like from international or Swiss schools back into the English system?

Relocating a family from one country to another is stressful at the best of times, but factoring in only a 3 month lead-time and juggling 3 young children (2 school age) was daunting to say the least. From someone who has experienced this and lived to tell the tale, some helpful practical advice on what you can expect. 

WHERE TO LIVE?

Your first step towards finding a school is working out exactly where you are going to live. If you are returning to your old house in the UK (maybe you rented it out whilst you were away) then obviously that makes things a whole lot easier (provided there is a good school nearby with available school places.... not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination).

If the location of your husband's or your new job is all you have to go on, then as soon as you know you are leaving, you should fly to your computer and prepare to spend hours of trawling through the internet, visiting different potential locations to live within an agreed number of miles radius of the new job.

Don't forget to plan your route to work: do you need to be near a station or a tube or will you be driving? There are helpful sites now where you can check on likely commuter times plus also check train company websites for current travel prices and timetables. See Websites section at the bottom of this article.

Once you have pinpointed the top five areas of where you might be living, book yourself a trip home to visit them all. We ended up having to make two such trips. After the first one we thought we had everything sorted and figured out, only to realize once we got back to Basel that we were potentially planning to locate ourselves a stones throw from one of the worst performing state schools in the area and no hope of getting a place anywhere else. Back to the drawing board.

Important note: applications for infant school, junior school and secondary/grammar (in certain counties) have to be made up to a year in advance. With a six year old to sort out, we not only needed to find a good infant school but also needed to check out the local junior schools because our choice of location would later determine what junior school we'd be eligible to apply for. For detailed info about this, visit the relevant local education authority website.

FINDING A SCHOOL PLACE

One word sums this up. Difficult. If you are planning to put your children in local state schools, the first thing you need to ensure is that you are going to be renting or buying in the catchment area of the school you want.

You can do this online at the council website. You can imput your postcode and the allocated schools come up. If the school is a church school, there may be a wider eccelsiastical catchment area.

Assuming you have checked and double checked that you are in the right location, the next step is finding out if there are any spaces for your children in the relevant year groups. This is not as easy as it sounds because nine times out of ten, if you contact the school and ask them they will refer you to the local authority.

If you call the local authority they will tell you that they cannot divulge this information until AFTER you have signed a rental agreement or exchanged contracts on a house. So on the face of it is is seemingly impossible to find out if there are school places for your children until you have already committed yourself to an area. Nightmare. 

Our advice is to go and visit the schools as soon as possible. Call and make an appointment. Explain your situation and chances are once the school head/ deputy meets you in person, he/she will be friendly and do their best to help once they see how nice (or how desperate) you are and will let you know if they have any spaces. The head can also give you a contact name at the local authority to deal with directly and this can make things easier.

However, spaces cannot be guaranteed. You will need to fill in an application form for a school place, available to download online via the website of the relevant local authority where you will be living ( to find the form just type the name of your local authority or county and the words 'starting school' into google and the right links should come up!), together with proof of the move back to the UK (end of tenancy abroad or proof your property in Basel is on the market, copies of passports plus proof of future UK residence eg rental agreement or solicitors letter).

If you are planning to send your children to private school, you need to contact your chosen schools and they will let you know if there is a space or a waiting list in the year/years you are interested in.

You then need to fill in an application form and pay a deposit to secure your place. Most schools require your child to go for an least an informal assessment day before a place will be offered. If your child is Year 3 age or above (7 or above) it is more likely he/she will have to take an entrance exam, although some schools are non-selective.

TRANSITION FROM SCHOOL IN BASEL TO SCHOOL IN ENGLAND

How are your children likely to get on if they move from Swiss schools to an English one? The answer to that is not clear cut as it largely depends on the individual child, how long they have been in Swiss school, if they have been in an English school previously etc etc.

The smoothness of the transition for the children is going to largely depend on whether your children have been in a German-speaking school (either exclusively German or 50%) or whether children have been in an entirely English speaking international environment.

SWISS STATE/SWISS INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS:

If your children have been taught exclusively or for a proportion of the time in immersive German, then it is likely that their English writing and reading is not going to be on a par with the children in English schools and extra help may be required on return.

Discuss this with the schools in England when you are looking around and ask their advice about transitions into each one.

 Obviously, the younger the children are, the easier the transition is going to be. Infant & junior schools have special help assistants who can provide weekly help either one to one or in small groups. Extra help sessions with things like phonics, maths etc will ensure your children soon catch up with peers.

If you are moving your children at age six or seven, this can be a particularly tricky age because of the different approach of the two countries towards schooling. In Switzerland, children start school at age six. Before that age, they are in kindergarten focusing on social and creative things rather than formal reading and writing.

In England formal learning starts at age four, so quite a big window of difference can open up! It's a good idea if you have time to do some English practice with your children at home in the run up to your return to familiarize them with what they might be expected to do in class.

There are loads of good websites (try oxfordowl.co.uk, www.letters-and-sounds.com, starfall.com) and fun workbooks you can buy from Amazon to do at home.

For older children who have never been in an English school, extra tuition will probably be recommended. A big difference between swiss and english schools is the possibility of having to repeat the school year. This is a totally normal concept in Switzerland and can come as quite a shock to english parents.

Children are assessed at the end of each year against skill sets and targets and if they have not met these, they are considered to have failed the year and need to stay behind and do it again. In English state schools it is almost unheard of for children to be asked to repeat a year of school. If they are behind for any reason they would normally be expected to stay with their peer group and have extra tuition in order to catch up (probably paid for and out of school hours). This usually means it is likely there will be one or two children in each class who are a year older than the rest.

SOCIAL AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

As well as the education content and style being different in Switzerland, the culture of the swiss school system is likely to feel very different to English schools.

Obviously this varies depending on which school your children have been in and are going to but generally speaking there is less emphasis (if any) on pastoral care in Swiss schools. You will hopefully find (as we have) that in England a more positive and rounded experience is provided with educational trips, sporting activities, music & drama being part of the usual school week.

There is also a greater focus on manners and needing to be polite, the need to say "please" and "thank you" is positively encouraged and rewarded. The "self-policing" policy by the children which is positively encouraged in Switzerland from about about age 6 does not exist in England. Teachers take charge!

ENGLISH SPEAKING INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS

Children who have been in exclusively English-speaking international schools will be familiar with English phonics teaching and will have fewer difficulties moving to another English-speaking school.

The main difference will probably be moving from a smaller (15-20 in a class) multi-cultured, international class of children in casual clothes (Swiss & many international schools have no uniform) to a class of 30 children all dressed the same. However some schools will divide the class regularly into 2 groups of 15 for important work.

Other things to note: Class age groups may be split differently in the UK. Whereas one school attended in Basel split year groups from April- May with April -born children being the youngest in the year, in England Sept- August born children always make up a class year. Also as mentioned above it is unlikely there will be any older children in the class that are resitting the year (which it is likely there would be in Basel).

USEFUL WEBSITES

www.rightmove.co.uk has helpful "maps & schools" section with house listings plus links to Ofsted reports

www.commuterguide.co.uk for those who'll be working in London and considering where to live

www.ofsted.gov.uk for latest inspection reports and school data www.isi.net has inspection reports for independent (private) schools. mumsnet.co.uk can be useful for parents views on schools and playgroups in your chosen area

www.education.gov.uk for information on the National Curriculum

Living in London- excellent print guide to relocating to London; information about everything from neighbourhoods to nannies to grocery shopping to lightbulbs to theatre tickets.

LAST WORD

Having experienced both Swiss German-speaking schools and English-speaking international ones (plus a French school but that is for a different article) our experience of moving the children back to schools in England has been entirely positive. Our children are much happier now in their English (state) schools, so don't panic too much!

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