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Teaching model Swiss schools abroad face testing times

The Swiss school in Barcelona no longer has a waiting list


Eighteen Swiss schools around the world welcome expatriates and foreign pupils. A new law could allow them to expand, but at a gathering in Zug the school authorities are not hiding their impatience – and, sometimes, their fears.

“We’re waiting for a loud ‘yes to Swiss schools’ from the Swiss government!” said Barbara Sulzer Smith, head of the Swiss school in Barcelona, who joined 40 other heads in Zug recently at the annual meeting of Swiss schools abroad.

Following the example of 13 other cantons – all German-speaking except bilingual Valais – Zug is a “patron” of Swiss schools. Swiss federalism means the schools, while private organisations abroad, have to opt for a specific cantonal education system.

Pupils in Barcelona therefore follow the Bernese syllabus, while canton Zug is the model for the school in Singapore.

But that isn’t what’s on the minds of the delegates this year. Their meeting is taking place during the consultation for the revision of the law on educating Swiss abroad, which will decide their future. Concerned parties can have their say until the end of September.

The government will then adopt and submit a draft bill to parliament. It is not expected to enter into force before 2014.

This is causing tension among the delegates, who can’t make big investment decisions. However, the federal contribution of SFr20 million ($20.4 million) appears to be safe.

“Delicate phase”

“It’s a delicate phase and the schools are slightly afraid,” confirmed Rudolf Wyder, head of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).

“The schools, increasingly called on to become pillars of the Swiss presence abroad, need flexibility to be able to conclude agreements. We also need new schools in emerging countries, because that enables us to forge contacts with the elites of those countries.”

Flexibility is the key word in the revision. Currently, to be recognised by the government and to receive a subsidy, a Swiss school abroad must – among other requirements – have at least 12 Swiss pupils (but 25 for initial demands), who make up at least 30 per cent of all pupils (20 per cent when there are more than 60 pupils). The new law would drop this minimum ratio.

“This quorum is an obstacle,” said Barbara Sulzer Smith. “For example we can’t accept new foreign students because of the requirement for a minimum number of Swiss. But if we want to develop and remain competitive, we need to be able to accept foreign pupils.”

No more waiting list

The Swiss school in Barcelona traditionally enjoys an excellent reputation among privileged Catalan families who want their children to have international careers.

But the economic crisis has left its mark, according to Sulzer Smith. “Until last year we had a waiting list. Now we don’t. We also see fewer Swiss expatriates coming to work in Spain.”

Although the future law would do away with a minimum percentage of Swiss pupils and teachers to obtain a subsidy, numbers are not totally irrelevant. According to the project, subsidies will depend on the total number of pupils and teachers.

This could also pose a problem: in Singapore, locals are forbidden from studying in foreign schools, which can only develop with expatriate children. Parliament will no doubt debate these issues.

Economic role

In its explanatory report, the government said “the presence of educational establishments would be particularly desirable in countries such as China, India, South Korea, Vietnam or Russia”.

“That’s where the future lies,” said Derrick Widmer, president of Education Suisse, the new name for the association for Swiss schools abroad.

“The revision will enable the schools to grow. But it’s necessary to give them a financial base. In some countries, if you can’t offer at least a gym, you’ve got no chance against the competition.”

The Swiss schools are being called on to play a greater role “in our economic and cultural foreign policy”, said the government report.

There is also the question of which ministry should oversee the schools.  Currently it is the interior ministry, but the economics ministry and foreign ministry could enter the picture given the schools’ links to the business world (notably for vocational training) and representing Swiss interests abroad. Rudolf Wyder at OSA leans towards the foreign ministry.


While they wait for a decision, candidates interested in opening Swiss schools are putting themselves forward.

An “international” school with 15 Swiss pupils has just opened in Vietnam. Under the new law, it might be able to claim to be a “Swiss Government Approved School”.

English is everywhere, but as Sulzer Smith explained, “we’re also guarantors of Swiss multilingualism because in addition to Spanish, Catalan and English, we teach in German and also offer French classes!”

Swiss schools abroad

There are currently 18 Swiss schools abroad:

Seven in Europe: Bergamo, Catania, Milan (with a branch in Como), Rome, Barcelona and Madrid.

Eight in Latin America: Mexico City (with branches in Cuernavaca and Querétaro), Bogotá, Lima, Santiago, São Paolo (with a branch in Curitiba).

One in Africa: Accra.

Two in Asia: Bangkok and Singapore.

The schools in Accra, Bergamo, Catania and Singapore only teach until secondary level I. All the others go from kindergarten to secondary level II (international baccalaureate).

A total of 7,500 pupils, of whom 1,800 are Swiss, receive a multilingual education (German, English, French and the national language).

The schools are run as public utilities which invest any profits. The Swiss government pays 25-30% of running costs (compared with 50% in 1988).

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(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens),

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