Integrate or stay international? The school dilemma

More than 60% of the children at Happy Nest are of Indian nationality Keerthana Balajee Nagarajan

Choosing where to educate children – local or international schools – can depend on money and cultural factors. That’s especially the case with families from India, in Switzerland for work.

This content was published on February 22, 2015 - 11:00
Keerthana Balajee Nagarajan, Zurich,

It’s a Monday morning at Happy Nest, one of the few English speaking playschools in Zurich, and the children have just begun their day with “circle time”. They say good morning with a greeting song naming each child in the group. Anahita, Itee, Dhanya, Akshaj goes the list. Ten of the 13 children are Indian.

Over the years, founder Lynn Boyd has welcomed children from all over the globe. Often the parents are bi-national and English is their common language. But the number of Indians at Happy Nest has been steadily increasing. “Fifty-three Indian children have attended Happy Nest since it opened in 2009. We have 26 children at the moment, of which16 are Indian. Another eight Indians are on the waiting list.”

Boyd believes the main reason that so many Indian parents send their children is that it is an English-speaking playgroup. “Over the years I've come to realise that education is an absolute priority to Indian parents and it would be unusual for an Indian child to start playgroup at two and a half years without already knowing and recognising most of the alphabet, shapes, colours and numbers. Many of them can already write letters and their name by three.”

“As a majority of the children will be returning to India, it's imperative that they are prepared for the highly competitive schools and the entry exams that are necessary to gain entrance,” says Boyd.

Swiss statistics from the 2012-2013 academic year show that there were 1,700 Indians attending schools at various levels in Switzerland. Of these nearly 300 children attended playgroups.

While a few Indian children at Happy Nest will be heading back to India to begin kindergarten, others will stay on for a few more years. Anahita Modi is one of them. She will soon join her brother at Zurich’s international Inter-community School (ICSZ).

“We chose to send our kids to an international school as it will help them when we move back to India and coping with studies will not be a problem,” says Surbhi Modi, Anahita’s mother. Her husband works for a multinational company where housing, schooling and medical care were covered as part of their relocation package.

“Nearly all families [here] on a contract for just a few years prefer international schools. Only a few families here have permanent living and working permits,” says Daniel Sarbach, the director of the International School of Zurich North (ISZN). 

Over a quarter (60) of ISZN’s pupils are from India. Among the 200 students there are 50 different nationalities. On average a student stays at the school for three years. 

“Our school is happy to host and educate a good number of students from India. Our Indian parents want to have the best education they can get for their children, especially when they go back to India,” he says. 

Students like Saimithrra, who is in grade 2. “Her father’s work contract is renewed on an yearly basis. So it was best for us to send our daughter to an international school,” says her mother, Saraswati Venkataraman. But sending her to international school has also resulted in less interaction with children in her neighbourhood. 


 Integrating into the local community was what pushed Ritish Kannan’s parents to enrol their son in a Swiss school, after moving to Switzerland from Britain nearly six years ago. 

“When we first moved to Switzerland, the transition period for Ritish was a bit hard. For the first three months he had no friends. Then I took him to Mutter-kind [mothers and children] German class. We followed it up with a German Spielgruppe [playgroup]. He soon picked up the language and found many friends,” says his mother Lavanya Thanigaivelu. 

The decision to go to a Swiss playgroup made it a lot easier for Ritish when he started kindergarten in Wurenlingen, Baden. Now nine years old, Ritish is doing well academically. A member of several children’s clubs in the area, he joined the local football club when he was five and he is now the captain of the team. Ritish’s latest achievement though has been in his other favourite game, chess, where he’s won the Basel under-12s chess king title.

Ritish (in the middle) after being crowned the under-12 champ at the Basel chess championship Keerthana Balajee Nagarajan

Thinking ahead

But opting for Swiss schools also comes with a certain other pressures. “By the time they reach grade 6, they are expected to be completely organised and have good grades,” says Viola Snophan, who’s lived in Switzerland since 2006.

She relocated to Switzerland with her husband Raj Snophan from India, when he was offered a permanent job with the IT sector of a Swiss bank. Viola Snophan, a dentist by profession could not continue her practice. Her boys, now 12 and five, go to a local Swiss school in Zurich. As parents they like the fact that Swiss education is affordable and has helped their sons be independent and integrate into the community

Both Indian and Swiss school systems start out similar with secondary school split into two levels. In upper secondary in India, students make their career choice from various streams of engineering, medicine, arts and humanities. In Switzerland, upper secondary is not mandatory and is divided into two groups: general education (leading to university) and vocational. 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.

Like any parent it is Snophan’s dream for her sons to have a good career. But she wonders if Switzerland’s streamed system will work for her children: “If they don't make it in the very first gymnasium entrance exam … they get two more chances in later grades, provided they make it to secondary school A. If not, they miss the chance to go to university. Instead they start directly as apprentices and work their way up from there. This I see as an absolute disadvantage. With an Indian mind set, I cannot bear to see my kids not going to university.”

Swiss statistics for the 2012-2013 academic year show that of 1,700 Indians in education, only 66 students were part of the apprenticeship stream and two completed their apprenticeship final exams. That year, 119 Indians completed their general education. 

In international schools, on the other hand, children can continue with grade school until the 12th or 13th year and then directly go straight to university. However, not many Indian families can afford to send their children to international schools. “The stumbling block here is merely monetary. The international schools are way too expensive. With a single breadwinner in the family it is quite impossible,” says Snophan. Most international schools in Switzerland would cost a parent up to CHF30,000 a year. 

Carla Mom, who is the head of vocational counselling at canton Zurich’s training department, agrees that the Indians do prefer full-time education to vocational studies. But she will also advise vocational education for those planning on staying in Switzerland. “To do a vocational education you have to be able to stay for at least three to four years in the same company. That is a good solution for people who do want stay and work in Switzerland. But it might be a bad solution for teenagers who will be travelling around the whole world [with their parents].”

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