Every child in Switzerland must go to school up to and including grade nine (around the age of 15), after which students are funnelled into apprenticeships, specialised programmes or university tracks.
The state school system in Switzerland is a responsibility devolved to the cantons, meaning there are 26 different education systems in the country.
The cantons are currently trying to harmonise their practices. For detailed descriptions of the system see the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education for an overview and a chart that shows how the system works.
Switzerland also has some of the best – and most expensive – private schools in the world ranging from kindergarten up to university age. The Swiss Private Schools Federation has more information on the 240 schools in the system.
The minimum enrolment age for kindergarten is set by the cantons. It is usually between the age of four years and four years nine months. Kindergarten lasts until a child has to begin primary school (age six by a certain cut-off date).
Under a nationwide agreement, two years of kindergarten will become the norm across Switzerland. The minimum enrolment age (four years) and the cut-off date (July 31) will be harmonised in cantons which have adopted the agreement.
To register a child in school, contact educational authorities in your particular canton. You can find a list of them at the Swiss Education Server website.
Primary school generally begins at age six – this will also be harmonised among the cantons. It is compulsory and free. Cantons and municipalities are responsible for organising and funding primary schools – often defined as the first six years of schooling (give or take a few years) not including kindergarten or pre-school.
As with kindergarten, you must register your child with the local educational authorities. You can find a list of them at the Swiss Education Server website.
Lower secondary school
Secondary I is the stage after primary education. At the end of the primary level, a child must continue on to lower secondary schooling, which lasts for three to five years, depending on the canton and municipality. This schooling is compulsory and free and marks the final stages of mandatory education. Children in these grades tend to be between 12 and 15. There is no nationwide exam at the end of ninth grade – the final year – so students receive no graduation certificate.
Children are divided up based on performance, teacher recommendations and perhaps a test. Testing, behaviour and work attitudes are used to determine whether a child continues to the next grade level.
Lower secondary teaching provides basic, general education (such as maths, geography and two foreign languages). Students at this level are being groomed for vocational education and apprenticeships or for continuing education at an upper secondary school.
Here is more information on what is taught at the lower-secondary level.
Upper secondary education
At the age of 16, pupils move to Secondary II level, which generally lasts three to four years. Upper secondary education is not mandatory and is divided into two groups: general education and vocational. About 20-30% of students go to a senior high school (commonly called “gymnasium” in German, “gymnase” or “lycée” in French and “liceo” in Italian). Most students get apprenticeships and vocational training. More than two-thirds are streamed into vocational training. This means the trainee spends most of his or her time working for an approved employer but attends a vocational school for one or two days a week.
For information on the latter, please see the section on Work Life, Apprenticeships.
Senior high schools are jointly regulated by cantonal and federal authorities but cantonal authorities often set admission requirements. In most cantons, an entrance exam is a critical component to determine whether a student can study at such a school.
At the end of their senior high school studies, students must do a type of thesis as well as pass a series of examinations that, if successfully completed, result in a matura – or baccalaureate – certificate that allows admission to cantonal universities and Federal Institutes of Technology. Certain tests may still apply for university admission if, for instance, a French-speaker wishes to study medicine in a German-speaking region.
For more on senior high schools, including how adults can earn a matura certificate, please see the Swiss Education site.