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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 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.

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 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.

Primary

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. 

Senior school alternatives

Gymnasium

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

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. 

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

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.

Secondary C

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.

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 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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