Schooling 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.
Primary and secondary education
Compulsory education in Switzerland lasts nine years. Most pupils start primary school at the age of six or seven, after one or two years of kindergarten. Secondary I is the stage after primary education. Pupils are given a basic general education, but at this stage they are usually tracked in an academic or a vocational direction.
At the age of 16, pupils move to Secondary II level, which generally lasts three to four years. Almost all young Swiss go to some kind of Secondary II school. 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.
This is the apprenticeship system, a particular feature of education in Switzerland as it is in Germany. Young people can now choose from about 300 recognised apprenticeships in Switzerland. For details of the system, see the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation.
About 20%-30% of young people continue their secondary education at a senior high school (or gymnase in French, or gymnasium in German): a school which provides a particularly intensive and demanding general academic education. Pupils are 19 or 20 by the time they finish. If they obtain the school leaving certificate (matura or maturité), they are qualified to go to university or to one of the two federal institutes of technology.
Apprentices can obtain a federal vocational baccalaureate (Berufsmaturität or maturité professionnelle), which enables them to study at a University of Applied Sciences (UAS). These are university-level colleges offering vocational training in a variety of fields, from computer science to hospitality. They provide tertiary education which includes practical work experience. There are also 17 “pedagogical high-schools,” or teacher-training colleges, in Switzerland.
Languages and education
Switzerland, as a country with four national languages, has long included language-learning among its educational priorities. Swiss children at school study not only the language spoken in their own region, but one of the other national languages as well.
Globalisation has meant that English now competes with the national languages in the school system. There is a great deal of controversy about this in Switzerland with some insisting on the value of the national languages for national unity, and others saying English should be the top priority.
At a more basic level, language is a constant issue in the Swiss primary school. To begin with, Swiss-German children, who speak dialect at home, face the task of learning standard German. Families are now more mobile in search of jobs, and may move to a canton where another language is spoken. In the bigger cities there are many immigrant children who come to school with little or no knowledge of the local language. Primary schools and their teachers are under a great deal of pressure to meet the needs of all these children.