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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

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

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.

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