A Swiss couple is enjoying strong success in providing an English-language education to English native speakers.
Switzerland has a number of "international" schools providing tuition in English but, as many foreigners have found, finding a free place for their child can be all but impossible.
That was the experience of Daniel and Karin Sarbach, a Swiss couple who returned from living abroad in 1999. They wanted to send their children to one of the two international schools serving canton Zurich but were confronted with long waiting lists.
Aware that many employees of multinationals were having similar problems finding places for their children, the Sarbachs decided to open their own international school.
With an investment of SFr1.5 million ($950,000), they set up the not-for-profit Wallisellen International School on the north side of Lake Zurich.
Easing the pressure
"Zurich International School and the Intercommunity School supported our move to establish Wallisellen because the pressure on them could be eased and they could also improve the level of their education," Daniel Sarbach told swissinfo.
In August 1999, Wallisellen opened its doors to 17 students. Two and a half years on, it has 120 pupils signed up for classes, and next year expects to see pupil numbers exceed the 200 mark.
Despite its relatively small size, it counts 25 different nationalities among its pupils whose ages range from three to 13. Typically, their parents are expatriates working for top-flight firms.
"The parents work in multinational companies and organisations like General Motors, Microsoft, or the banks," Wallisellen director, Bob Dwyler, told swissinfo.
"People also come to Switzerland for some kind of contract work for two to five years before moving back to their home country," and need their children to be placed in an English-speaking school, he continued.
Although Wallisellen is not in business for profit, the tuition fees are worthy of a corporate salary, costing parents between SFr17,000 and SFr20,000 per child, per annum. One incentive for parents to dig deep is the "international experience" that students come away with.
The curriculum aims to "make the children independent thinkers who have perhaps more of a global perspective" than their Swiss counterparts, Dwyler said.
Sarbach believes the broad curriculum offers an alternative to Swiss schools. It also provides a unique multicultural and multi-lingual learning environment.
However this kind of "international experience" does have its drawbacks. Pupils and families tend to socialise within the mainly English-speaking world of the international school and firm - at the expense of getting to know the local language and culture.
Dwyler argues that people coming from abroad like their children to mix with peers in a similar situation. It is up to them, though, to make the most of living in Switzerland.
"Families can develop associations with whoever they like. But the exposure to the international community... to a child from India, England, Canada, Denmark, or Spain, where they can experience all these cultures, ensures that pupils cannot lose. They only stand to benefit," he said.
Wallisellen is looking to expand and Sarbach hopes to start construction on a new campus within the next two and a half years.
"The area of Zurich has around 1,300 to 1,400 students who are registered at international schools and this figure is expected to grow to 1,500 in the next couple of years.
"There is enough demand to set up a new campus to cater for 600 students and that will take away pressure from the other international schools that are fully booked and cannot expand," Sarbach said.
This time, Sarbach is hoping to raise a quarter of the SFr25 million budget from private firms that have international employees with children enrolled there.
by Samantha Tonkin