International Schools in Zurich (or "Do I really need to pay CHF28,000 per year for private school?")
International schools or local? Should your child attend private or state?
A thorough examination of every reason either way in this very personal overview of schooling in Zurich by editor, expat and parent Sandy Opravil.
The Zürich Metropolitan Area is a great place to live. My family has been very happy here for many years. As an editor of The Good School Guide International, however, it is not my job to tell you to do as we did, but rather help you find the very best living and schooling arrangement for your family.
Therefore, we are going to use my experience of having my children in Swiss schools to help you answer that 28,000 question posed above.
Is private school really necessary for your child?
The short answer is: if you are settling here permanently and your children are very young, probably not. However, if you are here for a limited amount of time or your children have already started school in another country, private school is essential.
The Swiss School System
Switzerland has a very fine educational system, do not get me wrong. Two of the main problems for expat families are that school is given in German and often the teachers slip into Swiss dialect, so it is virtually impossible for children who are not fluent in Swiss German to keep up.
The second problem is that curriculum requirements are not set by the federal government, but rather by the individual cantons. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland which means there are 26 different curriculae.
How big of a problem can this really be? Well, take a look at the map. If you refer to my posting about moving to Zürich, you will see my four cities which define a reasonable commuting area for working in Zürich ie: Aarau, Winterthur, Rapperswil, and Zug.
Zürich and Winterthur are in Canton Zürich. Aarau is in Canton Aargau. Zug is the capital of Canton Zug. And Rapperswill is in Canton St. Gallen. Now, if your child starts school in Canton Zürich, after 6th grade s/he will be streamed into one of three levels.
However, in Canton Aargau, this streaming takes place in 5th grade. So, if you move from Zürich to Aarau when your child is starting 7th grade, they have to go back and repeat a year to make sure they are at the same level as the other kids in their class.
That’s just a small domestic example. Imagine extrapolating this to an international level.
This takes me to the third and most imposing problem for expat families sending their children to Swiss schools. Simply stated, I cannot possibly recommend Swiss schools for children whose families have an international lifestyle because Swiss schools train children to be good Swiss citizens who will live in Switzerland.
If that last sentence sounded redundant to you, it is intentional. The priority of all Swiss schools is to keep our talent here and not train them to go running around the world being good citizens in other countries. During the primary and secondary years, Swiss schools will not correspond to other countries.
Using examples close to home...
The easiest way to explain how the Swiss school system trains children to stay in Switzerland is to use my children as an example. Simone was born in 1988 and Jacqueline was born in 1990. Both are completely bilingual and have no learning challenges. We’ve lived in the same house since Simone was born. Due to my husband’s profession, we were committed to living in Switzerland. The natural choice was to send them to the neighbourhood school.
Although there have been some minor changes since my children started school, things remain pretty much the same. They started Kindergarten at age 5. Kindergarten here is a two year program but Kindergarten teachers are not licensed to teach reading, writing, or basic maths, so those two years are spent playing, painting, singing, and learning to socialize. If a child is not mother-tongue German, it is a great time for them to become fluent before adding academic stress. If a child is fluent, the second year is pretty boring.
Grades 1-6 comprise what is called Primary School. (Grades 1-5 in different cantons, but let’s just stick with Canton Zürich to keep this understandable). During this time, children learn reading and writing in German, mathematics up to early Geometry, Swiss history, Swiss geography, singing, handicrafts, swimming, and sports. French and English as second languages are introduced in Grade 4. If a teacher is motivated to do so, some basic science might be taught. There is no separation according to ability.
The Canton Zürich curriculum has goals that a teacher must achieve in each grade, but the teachers are allowed great autonomy as to how they reach these goals. Schools have no headmasters. They are governed by a group of local volunteers. Unless a child is very disruptive, there is no special education for learning disabilities. Class size is generally between 18 and 22 students. Each class has the same teacher from Grades 1-3. Then, the class gets a new teacher who will be with them from Grades 4-6. If the teacher likes your child, it’s wonderful. If not, bad luck.
During Primary School, if a child does not speak any German, there is an option for them to be placed in a special class for one year to learn German. This class may or may not be in your neighbourhood school. For such a class to take place, there must be a minimum of three students. One such class that I heard of had a 6th grader from Bosnia, a 5th grader from Thailand, and a 1st grader from the UK.
During 6th Grade, your child’s future will be determined. Approximately 15% of students will qualify for Gymnasium. 40% will be streamed into Secondary A, another 40% into Secondary B, and 5% into Secondary C. These percentages are broad approximations and vary from area to area. What exactly are these different streams?
Gymnasium lasts for 6 years. It is intensely academic. Subjects such as Latin, Physics, Trigonometry, and Literature are taught here. Students graduate at approximately age 18 with a diploma called the Swiss Matura. Only a Matura qualifies students for university study either in Switzerland or abroad. To qualify for Gymnasium, the student must have a high grade point average, pass a 4 hour test, and have their teacher’s recommendation.
Secondary A lasts 3 years and trains students for an apprenticeship program in a white collar profession. It is somewhat academic but also emphasizes practical skills such as resume composition and business writing. Biology and chemistry are introduced here. At age 16, students in this stream generally go into an “on the job” training program where they work part-time and go to school part-time. Or, they can take the aforementioned 4 hour test and see if they qualify to go to the Gymnasium (approx. 8% qualify).
The apprenticeship program lasts another 3 years so at the age of 18 or 19, these students have an “LAP” (Lehrabschlüss Prüfung) diploma which qualifies them to enter a management training program in a company or a profession such as nursing. With an additional year of study, a Secondary A student can achieve a BMS (Berufsmaturität) diploma which is almost equivalent to a Matura and qualifies them to enter bachelor’s programs in 90% of all fields.
Secondary B also lasts 3 years and trains students for an apprenticeship program in a trade. The emphasis here is on practical knowledge as these students will be qualifying for trades such as carpenter, electrician, cook, hairdresser, or retail sales.
It is possible for students with exceptional notes in Secondary B to move up to Secondary A, but it is rare. After the three year program, Secondary B students also move into apprenticeship programs where they work part-time and study part-time.
They also receive an “LAP” diploma which qualifies them to work in the field in which they trained. The main difference is that these students would have to go for additional schooling in order to move into a white collar profession like banking and they cannot achieve a BMS with one additional year’s study. If a student from the Secondary B wanted to study farther as an adult, he would first have to enter a 4 year program for adults to obtain an Adult Matura. Only then could he enter a Bachelor’s program.
The Secondary C program is very small and is for those students with learning challenges who were not channelled into special education during the primary years but still cannot keep up with a Secondary B class.
Back to Our Living Examples....
Let’s get back to my children now. Simone went to Gymnasium straight out of 6th grade. She is now studying psychology at the University of Zürich. To obtain a bachelor’s degree, she needs two years of study in addition to her Matura. She talks about doing her master’s in another country and that would be no problem.
Jacqueline went to Secondary A. This summer she will complete her LAP in business and will be qualified to go into a training program in banking or insurance but has chosen to stay the one extra year to obtain the BMS. She could then choose a bachelor’s program. At the end of the day, approximately at the age of 20 to 22, these kids have the education to stand on their own two feet or pursue an advanced degree.
When Simone was in 4th grade and Jacqueline in 1st, my husband was offered a job at Harvard. We seriously looked into moving the family to Boston.
Needless to say, Simone was the one who would have suffered the most. To start off, she didn’t have the English grammar and spelling skills needed. Although they all come out at the end of 6th grade with similar math skills, Switzerland teaches math in a different sequence then in the States so Simone was at a 6th grade level in some ways and a 2nd grade level in others.
Of course, she had never studied Christopher Columbus or Paul Revere. At least she could speak English and was a good student. But, nobody really knew where to place her.
Then we came to Jacqueline. Go back up 9 paragraphs to Kindergarten. Swiss Kindergarten teachers are not licensed to teach reading, writing, or maths. This means that my 7 year old had not been formally taught the alphabet, or how to count in any language, or how to write her name. OK, she could catch up quickly because we read a lot at home, but it starts early.
I cannot imagine if I had tried to transfer my girls to American high school and tried to explain what a Gymnasium and a Secondary A are and then tried to figure out where to place them. Actually, I have never heard of anyone from Secondary A or B going on an exchange year although it is very popular with Gymnasium kids. Talk about lost in translation!
We ended up staying in Switzerland. There were other factors, not only the children’s educations. But, I did enrol them in a private after school program to get their English grammar, writing, and spelling skills up to speed. Swiss German is quaint, but it is not going to take you very far in this world.
Not to Mention the School Day...
There are a few other considerations that might be of interest to you. In most countries, schools have a set morning beginning time (8, or maybe 8:30am) every day and a set quitting time (3 or 3:30pm). In Switzerland, your child may start school at 8am one day and 10am another day.
There is still a 1½ hour lunch break for primary and secondary school children. Most primary and secondary schools do not have facilities for children to eat lunch at school. It is up to you to make your own arrangements.
Quitting time depends on whether they are split into groups, or have swimming, or who knows what. The school is not required to coordinate the schedule of multiple children from the same family. Schools do not have sports teams and playing a musical instrument is up to the family’s own arrangement.
Further, children may not be taken out of school except for illness or a family emergency. If you want to take your child out of school a day or two before the scheduled holiday break to attend your family Christmas in Australia, you will be penalized CHF1000 per child per day. The same applies to returning back late. If you do it twice and your children may get kicked out of school entirely.
This is why I really can only highly recommend that you send your children to an international private school unless you are planning for yourself and your family to integrate into the Swiss culture and live here for the rest of your lives.
If you’re staying here and everyone can operate in Swiss German, your children will get a good education. But if you plan on moving someday, or if both parents work, or if you need some flexibility to travel, think this through long and hard.
If this is your first move, you will want to know how all these international schools in all these different countries make it possible for you to move anywhere and for your children to get a standardized education that is recognized in any country. There are plenty of articles describing various curricula, transitions between them, etc in the Feature Articles section of this Guide, and it's instructive to take a look.
All of the schools that will be reviewed for the Zurich section, with the exception of Hull’s School, follow the International Baccalaureate Program. This curriculum is recognized world wide. Whether you are planning to live in the ZMA for one year or an undetermined time, your children will be able to transfer seamlessly back to your home country or to an IB school in virtually every country on Earth (unless your child happens to be midway through the IB Diploma programme. More on that in IB to IB: A Seamless Transition Wherever You Go?). Of course, they will not have the emphasis on local history and geography that is common to primary schools, but the rest will be in place.
If You Had a Do-Over...
If I had to do it all over again, would I still make the decision to send my children to Swiss school? Probably yes. It is really very different from the system I grew up in but looking backward I can see some distinct advantages to the Swiss approach.
Now, had I known my husband was going to get a job offer in the States in the middle of their educations, would I send them to Swiss school? Probably not.
And if I'd been certain we were going to move while they were still in school, I would have sent them to an international school. It’s as simple as that.
The Good News
...is that after reviewing these schools, I would be very comfortable sending my children to any one of them. Beside the flexibility these schools offer families, the atmosphere and the teaching staffs of these schools are excellent. The facilities are superb and I was very impressed by the emphasis that is placed on science, music, and after school sports. You can feel very certain that you are doing the best for your child.