Skip to main content

Zurich education and international schools guide

Is private school really necessary for your child if you are posted to Zurich? The short answer is: if you are settling permanently and your children are young, probably not. However, if your time here is short and your children have started school elsewhere, an international private school can be essential.

International Schools

There are three purely international schools in Zurich, in the sense that they only  provide a choice of International qualifications, either the International Baccalaureate Diploma (the Inter-Community School Zurich) or A Levels (Hull’s School Zurich and the International School Zurich North). Out of the remainder of  secondary schools, in or close to Zurich, the Academia International School, offers A Levels and the Swiss Matura, Zurich International School offers its own leaving qualification, as well as the IB Diploma and the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz (actually over the border in Germany) has the German Abitur as an alternative to the IB Diploma or the IB Careers Programme.

There are also two junior schools, both teaching an adapted curriculum in English – the Lakeside School Kusnacht and the SIS Swiss International School

Outside Zurich, above the town of Zug and overlooking the lake is the Institut Montana Zugerberg, offering the alternatives of the International Baccalaureate Diploma, the American High School Diploma or the Swiss Matura.

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 Zurich considered by expats'.

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 curricula.

How big of a problem can this really be?  Well, take a look at the map, there are 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.

The third and most imposing problem for expat families sending their children to Swiss schools is 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. 


Kindergarten here is a two year program, starting in August each year, and is compulsory for every child who has turned four by 31st July. 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.


Primary education is divided into lower (classes 1-3) and middle (classes 3-6).  During this time, children learn reading and writing in German, mathematics up to early geometry, Swiss history, Swiss geography, singing, handicrafts, drawing, religion, swimming, and sports.  French and English are taught as first foreign languages If a teacher is motivated to do so, some basic science might be taught.  There is no separation according to ability. 

Senior school alternatives

Secondary school

Secondary school last for three years and is divided into three departments. All secondary schools have A and B departments and a few also offer department C (for the less academic). The classification is based on an overall assessment of the child's time in primary school, including application and behaviour as well as academic ability.

The subjects scrutinised are German, French, English and maths and the child is assigned to one of three levels, Level 1 being the most demanding. Moving levels (a joint decision by parents and teachers) is possible, but only on a few set dates, and after the second or third grade, pupils can re-take the entrance exam and join a short version (Kurz Gymi) of the academic programme at a Lang Gymnasium).

Lang Gymnasium 

Entry is via a tough 'Gymi' exam that is only passed by about 20% of the pupils at primary school. If they pass they enter a six year long, elite, academic programme that leads to a baccalaureate diploma giving direct entry into Swiss universities. There is also the option of joining the short-term version (four years) mentioned above.

Vocational education

The alternative path at the end of the three years of compulsory education is vocational education, which teaches professional skills as well as a general education, in addition to practical training. The vocational baccalaureate (German) qualifies students for admission to a university of applied sciences. There is also an additional path to university available, of completing the 'Passarelle' (university/ETH entrance qualification). To complicate matters further, Business schools (HMS) and IT schools (IMS) are alternatives, both of which require passing an exam and finally there are Specialised Intermediate schools for students wanting to join a specific occupation.

In summary, the educational opportunities, offered by the state, are wider than in most countries and the system receives many plaudits but to an outsider it can seem very baffling compared to the relatively simple alternative of a private school.

Useful information

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 handed a large fine. The same applies to returning back late. If you do it twice and your children may get kicked out of school entirely.      

And finally…

To answer the original question more fully: I have to 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, operate entirely in Swiss German and are planning to live in Switzerland for the foreseeable (made harder to guess at by Covid) future.

State schools provide a very 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 before you commit. International schools offer families, an international qualification, atmosphere and excellent teaching staff. 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 if you take this route.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Special educational needs introduction

    Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need. Our SEN consultancy team advises on both special schools, and the mainstream schools with good SEN support, from reception through to the specialist colleges for 19+. Special Educational Needs Index

  • The Good Schools Guide International

    Coronavirus As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, The Good Schools Guide International offers the following guidance:  Determine the global situation and that of individual countries on government mandated school closures by accessing the UNESCO information on this link:   For updates on the medical situation, go to  the World Health Organisation website at  If you wish to contact one of our GSGI listed schools to discover their current status or any plans for alternate learning strategies, please go to our database to find email and phone numbers for each school If your company makes you brexit, The GSGI should be your first stop.…

  • Uni in the USA... and beyond

    The British guide to great universities from Harvard to Hong Kong. We tell you how to choose, how to apply, how to pay.

  • Grammar schools best value added

    We examined the value-added from KS2 to GCSE for 2017 to see which state selective grammar schools added the most value to their offspring. A note of caution - the more highly selective a grammar school, the less scope there will be to add value. Read more

  • Music, drama and dance at Performing Arts schools

    At specialist music, dance or performing arts schools, the arts aren't optional extras. They’re intrinsic to the school curriculum. Students are expected to fit in high level training and hours of practice alongside a full academic provision. It's a lot to ask any child to take on, but for those with exceptional performing ability this kind of education can be transformative.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

☑ 30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
☑ Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
☑ Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,200 schools
☑ Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

Buy Now

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.