The Swiss School Beijing, opening next month, will be the first of its kind in China and the first new Swiss school abroad in more than three decades.
“We are very excited about the start of term,” said Barbara Stäuble, president of the Association Swiss School Beijingexternal link, at the recent conference of Swiss Schools Abroadexternal link in Zurich where the buzz around the new Chinese location was palpable.
The school, which will be housed in the existing Western Academy Beijingexternal link, will open on August 21 on a small scale, she explained. At first, it will offer Kindergarten as well as Primary 1 and 2 classes. The idea is to expand the school year by year, to reach 150 pupils.
It will be part of network of 18 Swiss schools abroadexternal link, international schools promoting Swiss values. The Beijing location will be the first fully independent Swiss school abroad to open since 1981, since more recent openings have involved expanding existing schools.
So why now and why Beijing? The number of Swiss expats in the Chinese capital has more than doubled in the past 25 years to over 4,000. The country is also Switzerland’s third-largest trading partnerexternal link, and China and Switzerland signed a free trade agreement in 2014.
For Stäuble, an expat academic with a background in higher education management, there was also a personal motivation.
“My son went to the Swiss school in Bogota for one year but after that there were no Swiss schools. So as a parent I would have liked to have seen a denser network,” she said.
A Swiss lawexternal link that came into force in 2015 to enhance the presence of Swiss education abroad also helped Stäuble’s efforts.
“We have a complex but a very well-structured and unique education system in Switzerland and we are almost too modest to promote it,” she says.
The new Swiss school will join the ranks of more than 50 international schools in the Chinese capital, which is now a major global hub.
“Swissness” will set the new school apart from others such as the German school in Beijing which focuses on reintegration into the German education system, says Stäuble. That means an emphasis on Swiss customs and values in an international environment, and the German language. There are plans to introduce French later.
The 2015 lawexternal link on Swiss education abroad dropped a previous requirement that 20% of pupils in a Swiss school must hold a Swiss passport. But there won’t be many locals attending in Beijing because Chinese law states that citizens of China may not go to international schools.
However, around half of the 15 new pupils have a Chinese parent, with the other parent being either Swiss or German, says Stäuble.
“They had to forfeit their Chinese passport but there is still that cultural influence.”
There are also two families sending children to the school, one from the United States and one from Taiwan, who specifically chose a German education to give their children more language experience.
“If you learn German in addition to Chinese and English, then you position yourself with an advantage,” Stäuble explains
There have been hurdles in launching the school, which was originally supposed to open its doors last year. One major challenge was the change in expatriate lifestyles, says Stäuble, since people no longer spend as much time in a single country. That leads to less impetus for setting up a school. Under the Swiss system, schools abroad are not state-sponsored but instead need motivation from the grassroots level such as parents and interested parties at the location.
Financing has also posed a challenge. Past Swiss schools abroad could ask for funding from local Swiss companies, but today’s management profile is more international with centralised sponsoring, Stäuble explains. As a result, the Beijing school received no sponsorships from Swiss companies in China.
Switzerland’s 2015 law on education abroad may help encourage new schools, but more support is needed in the early stages to make them possible without endangering the grassroots approach, she observed.
Canton Zurich’s role
The new Swiss school did get lucky because its patron canton – which each Swiss school abroad is required to have – is the canton of Zurichexternal link. It already supports three other Swiss schoolsexternal link, in Madrid, Catania, Italy and Mexico.
The canton provides extra teacher training, curriculum advice, recruitment help and some quality assurance. It also gives the school access to lottery funds, which have helped pay for school books. School fees and government subsidies make up the rest of the funding.
Silvia Steinerexternal link, head of educationexternal link for canton Zurich, says that the feasibility studyexternal link into the Beijing school had shown “the necessary pioneering spirit with careful planning”. The modest plan at the start and cooperation with another well-established school were factors that worked in its favour, she adds.
Beijing is, of course, also interesting for an economic powerhouse like canton Zurich. “Such a link could be valuable for Zurich as an economic and tourism location. This is why we signalled our interest in taking over the patronage from day one,” Steiner says. The school, like the others of its kind, will also serve as a “visiting card” for Switzerland and the canton, she added.
In the long-term, there could be knowledge transfer between Zurich and Beijing, estimates Steiner. Plus, Switzerland can learn from its schools abroad how to operate in a multicultural and -lingual environment and how day school structures work - a concept that is still not so widespread within Swiss borders.
Barbara Sulzer Smith, director of the umbrella organisation for Swiss schools abroad educationsuisse,external link told swissinfo.ch that she sees a real potential for the location in Beijing. And she confirmed that efforts are underway to open another Swiss school in Shanghai.
Swiss schools abroad in brief
Currently there are 7,500 students, of which 1,800 are Swiss children, enrolled in Swiss schools abroad.
In all such schools, German is the second language of instruction besides the local language or English. The school in Bogota offers French as well as German.
Pupils can take either a Swiss Baccalaureate (Matura) or International Baccalaureate (IB).
The Swiss government provides 25-30% of the funding, and the rest comes from school fees. For the period 2016-2020, parliament has allocated around CHF21 million ($22 million) a year for Swiss schools abroad.
Source: educationsuisse, Swiss news agencyend of infobox
This article is the first of a two-part series into Swiss schools abroad. Part two, to be published shortly, will look at challenges facing these institutions. Contact the author of this article on twitter: @IsobelLeyboldexternal link