A branch of the Zurich International School is closing its doors in July after enrolment failed to live up to expectations. It’s not the only one. Just what is behind the spate of closures in schools in eastern Switzerland catering to expat offspring?
On a late weekday afternoon, Lawrence Wood, principal of the SIS Swiss International School Winterthur, looks on as a handful of young students climb ropes and chase balls on a rooftop playground.
Enrolment at his 14-year-old school is at an all-time high with 112 students. Nevertheless, Wood now finds himself assuring concerned parents that his school is here to stay following the recent closure of another international school across town.
During the first decade of the millennium, many international businesses relocated to Switzerland and brought an expat workforce with them. These non-Swiss workers wanted their children to have an international education, and new schools catering to the expat crowd sprouted up across the country.
However, less-generous work contracts along with Swiss economic and political developments are having a tangible impact on international schools, especially outside the large cities that many expats call home. In May, the International School Winterthur closed its doors after declaring bankruptcy. In July, the Zurich International School will shut down its campus in Baden, while the International School of Zug and Lucerne plans to close its school in Lucerne next year.
“There’s no question about it. The expat market is tough,” Wood explains later in an interview in his office. “When these families move here, you have do your best to get them and do your best to keep them. You can’t sit back and say they’re going to come to us. Those days are over.”
Change in the law
Back in the boom times, Wood believed Winterthur was a big enough market for two international schools even though the population hovers at just above 100,000. Several global companies are present in Winterthur, and the city is also home to expats who commute to work in Zurich.
A 2011 decision by canton Zurich to stop local children from attending international schools came into force in the 2012-2013 academic year. Zurich effectively overruled a 1998 decision to allow anyone to attend international schools without having to give justification. Some local parents opted to give their children an international education so that they would have more exposure to the English language. Other parents working for multinational firms may have had half an eye on a foreign posting. The Zurich authorities were alarmed at the increasing numbers of local children opting out of the state school system.
The closure of the International School Winterthur (ISW) was unexpected. The school cited several factors for its failure. First, fewer companies are willing to foot the entire tuition bill for employees’ children at international schools, a trend that other Swiss international schools have also observed.
In addition, a 2011 ruling that placed restrictions on local children attending international schools in canton Zurich led to a smaller number of eligible students. In 2013, 200 students were enrolled at ISW. By this spring, just 100 remained, according to local newspaper Der Landbote.
Economic issues are also denting demand. The financial crisis of 2008, the strong Swiss franc, and ongoing uncertainty regarding immigration curbs approved by voters in 2014 have made some companies think twice about relocating to Switzerland. That means fewer potential international students.
Some areas are more affected than others. In the Geneva area, for example, demand for private schools is rebounding and capacity increasing. In 2013, the Gems World Academy opened its doors in Etoy in canton Vaud.
The International School of Geneva, which operates eight schools across three campuses in Geneva, still has waiting lists and reports that enrolment is at an all-time high this current school year. Michael Kewley, the International School of Geneva’s director of marketing, says demand is strong from local students. The presence of international organisations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and non-governmental organisations in Geneva also ensures steady enrolment at international schools in the area.
“Whilst we are never complacent and are clearly monitoring the external marketplace and various economic and legal factors…right now we are not yet feeling the pinch,” Kewley explained in an email.
Pupils in flux
The closure of ISW left parents and students scrambling for a solution to finish the school year. The International School of Schaffhausen stepped in to help fill the gap, taking on 30 new students. Half of those students will stay for the next academic year.
The Schaffhausen school is a relatively new entrant to the Swiss education market, opening its doors in 1999. The school, which has an enrolment of more than 270 students excluding the influx from Winterthur, must compete with the big international schools in Zurich. Helping out the Winterthur students provided the Schaffhausen school with an opportunity to show what it can offer.
“It was a significant addition overnight,” says Gundula Kohlhaas, head of the Schaffhausen school. “On the first few days, we didn’t have enough chairs and we needed to get in a few more tables. I think it was important for the families and the students that they could keep coming to school every day.”
In Baden, a small town close to Zurich that has become popular with expats, parents have been given more time to prepare for the closure of another international school this summer. Zurich International School (ZIS), which has been in business for more than 50 years, opened a new campus in Baden in 2007 when economic prospects for the area looked more promising.
“During the first decade of the millennium, we had an extreme boom in globalisation,” says Urte Sabelus, a spokeswoman for ZIS. “A lot of global companies moved to Switzerland at the time and brought a lot of internationally mobile families.”
But she pointed out that economic changes can be swift. “The schools have to stay quite flexible in that respect.”
Growth at the Baden school flattened, hitting a plateau of 150 students spread over ten grades from kindergarten to grade eight. The numbers weren’t high enough for the school to be cost efficient, and growth prospects were uncertain after one of the area’s big employers, Alstom, agreed to sell its power unit to General Electric.
At the beginning of the school year, ZIS told parents that the Baden campus would close this July, and the children could transfer to one of ZIS’ other four campuses in the Zurich area, where 1,500 children are currently enrolled and there are waiting lists. While the closure of the Baden campus was unfortunate, she says the Zurich campuses remain the centre of the organisation.
The International School of Zug and Luzern (ISZL) has also made the painful decision to close its school in Lucerne, which has 80 students, in June 2016. ISZL will focus on its original location in nearby international business hub Zug, where 750 students are enrolled. Most of the students impacted by the Lucerne closure will move to the Zug campus.
ISZL, which caters exclusively to international families, opened its Lucerne branch in 2006. Enrolment growth proved slow as the international companies that came to Lucerne brought fewer expat employees. Enrolment peaked at just over 100 students in 2013 before dipping below again, according to Laura Schoepfer, a spokeswoman for ISZL.
“The environment has matured,” Schoepfer says. “What we saw before was a period of rapid growth. We’ve now hit a period of maturity in the market and I think we will see stability.”
Schoepfer remains optimistic about the future for the Zug school, which is planning a major project to upgrade its facilities, including a new sports field and an Early Learning Centre.
“Switzerland does remain a very attractive place for international companies to do business,” Schoepfer says.
Back in Winterthur, SIS is also planning to stay for the long term. The school offers a bilingual education in German and English, a concept that is helping it grow despite more challenging economic conditions, according to Ursula Gehbauer, chief executive officer of SIS Swiss International Schools in Switzerland, which has built up a network of 16 schools in Switzerland, Germany and Brazil since 1999.
The bilingual concept prevented SIS Winterthur from getting caught up in the 2011 regulation and losing its local Swiss students. Students are also more flexible since they also learn German and can enter a local school if the need arises, which parents appreciate.
SIS Winterthur recognises that the days of explosive growth are over for now. While other SIS schools in Zurich have waiting lists, the Winterthur school is content to expand slowly and remain in its current building near the main train station.
“We might get a little bit bigger, but it’s not going to be the explosive growth you would have down on Lake Zurich or in Basel,” Wood says.
Swiss International Schools
There are 44 international schools that come under the umbrella of the Swiss Group of International Schools (SGIS).
The number of students attending private schools, which include international schools, varies widely from canton to canton.
As of the 2012/2013 academic year, the highest percentage of students attending private school was in the canton of Basel city with a 12.6% rate. The next highest was the canton of Geneva, where 9.1% of students attended a private school, followed by the canton of Ticino with 6.3%, Zug with 5.2% and Zurich with 5%.The lowest rate of students attending private school was in the canton of Graubünden at just 0.6%.
International schools typically teach the International Baccalaureate in English – an internationally accepted qualification for university entrance.