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Information about Education in Switzerland

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Table of contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Schools
    1. Kindergarten
    2. "Volksschule" (Elementary school)
    3. "Berufslehre" (Apprenticeship)
    4. "Gymnasium" (Secondary school)
    5. "Universität" (University)
    6. "Fachhochschule" (University of Applied Sciences)
  3. Education curriculum
  4. Education on the Internet

1. Introduction:

Since Switzerland has no natural resources, education and knowledge have become very important resources. Therefore Switzerland claims to have one of the world's best education systems. Because the cantons are responsible for educational services (kindergarten, schools, universities), education may vary significantly between cantons. For example, some cantons start to teach the first foreign language at fourth grade, while others start at seventh grade. This can turn moving with children between cantons into a nightmare.

In Switzerland, most children go to public schools. Private schools usually are expensive and people tend to think that students of private schools probably didn't make it at the public school. Public schools include "Kindergarten", "Volksschule" (elementary school), "Gymnasium" (secondary school) and "Universitäten" (universities). Most municipalities provide kindergarten, primary and secondary schools. Most cantons provide at least one secondary school. There are eleven universities in Switzerland, nine are run by cantons, two are run by the confederation.

After elementary school, kids may either choose to go to secondary school or to start an apprenticeship. In the later case, after finishing the apprenticeship, it is still possible to start an academic career at either a secondary school or a so called "Fachhochschule" (FH) (university of applied sciences).

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2. Schools:

In Switzerland, every child must attend at least the elementary school. Our country provides various schools at different levels. Because the cantons are responsible for the educational system, the names, the subjects, the starting age of the students and the duration vary significantly between the cantons. The rest of this document therefore focuses on how it works in the canton Zürich.


2.1 Kindergarten:

Unlike school, children may or may not be required to attend "Kindergarten", depending on the region. However, attending Kindergarten becomes more an more mandatory and most children do go to Kindergarten. They do not learn how to read and write but shall develop their social capabilities and get used to sit quiet for a while and pay attention to the teacher. Children may attend Kindergarten for one year or two years. Because they are supposed to start school at the age of seven, they go to Kindergarten when they are five and six years old.


2.2 "Volksschule" (Elementary school):

The "Volksschule" (elementary school) is mandatory for all Swiss children. They must either attend the public school or must go to a private school. Elementary school starts at the age of seven and lasts at least eight, but usually nine years. Some schools offer an additional year for kids who haven't either yet decided what to do after school, haven't found a job to start an apprenticeship or haven't yet reached the age to start what they would like to do. The "Volksschule" is divided into "Primarschule" and "Oberstufenschule":

"Oberstufenschule" itself is divided into three different levels: They used to be called "Sekundarschule", "Realschule" and "Oberschule", but there were some recent changes to that. Today, the schools still provide three different levels, but students will be assigned individually to one level per subject. This is true for major subjects such as math, native language and first foreign language only; all other subjects are taught per class.

After "Primarschule", students can also choose to go to "Gymnasium" (secondary school) directly without going to the "Oberstufenschule"; in this case, the "Gymnasium" takes 6½ years instead of 4½ years (see also curriculum).


2.3 "Berufslehre" (Apprenticeship):

In Switzerland, most kids start a "Berufslehre" (apprenticeship) after elementary school. Depending on the profession, an apprenticeship takes two to four years. Apprenticeships include all kinds of professions, from handicraft (mechanician, carpenter, baker, hairdresser etc.) to office worker (secretary, bookkeeper, IT specialist etc.). Apprentice will get trained at a company or organization, but also attend school for one or two days a week. Some companies also provide additional classes on their own.

After apprenticeship and depending on their education, young people can either start a job or join other schools for further education, including so called "Fachhochschulen" (previously known as "Höhere Technische Lehranstalt" (HTL), University of Applied Sciences).


2.4 "Gymnasium" (Secondary school):

There are various types of "Gymnasia" (secondary schools) with different emphasis and major subjects:

The "Mathematisches und Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium" (secondary school of math and science) focuses on math and science, but teaches German and two foreign languages as well (usually French and English or Italian). The "Neusprachliches Gymnasium" (secondary school of modern languages) focuses on modern languages such as German, French, Italian and English, but includes some math and science as well. The "Altsprachliches Gymnasium" (secondary school of ancient languages) focuses on Latin plus at least two other languages, but includes math and science subjects as well. There is also the "Wirtschaftsgymnasium" (secondary school of economics) that focuses on economy. Recently, new types of "Gymnasia" have been introduced, such as the "Musisches Gymnasium" (secondary school of art) which focuses on music and art and the "Sportgymnasium" (secondary school of sports) which emphasis on sportive activities.
All these secondary schools last either six and a half or four and a half years and lead to the so called "Eidgenössische Matura" (federal graduation diploma) which is recognized at all universities in Switzerland and at most universities in foreign countries.

The "Fachmittelschule" (upper secondary school) also leads to a graduation diploma. Typically, a student of the "Fachmittelschule" would become a teacher afterwards, but she or he is not limited to that subject.

Even after an apprenticeship, it is still possible to get a graduation diploma at a so called "Maturitätsschule" (graduation diploma school). After finishing such a "Maturitätsschule", a student can attend an university like a student who attended a "Gymnasium". This path in the educational curriculum is known as "Zweiter Bildungsweg" (secondary educational path).


2.5 "Universität" (University):

There are eleven "Universitäten" (universities) in Switzerland, nine of them are run by a canton, two are run by the confederation. In general, the universities run by the cantons provide non-technical subjects, whereas the universities run by the confederation provide technical subjects. The later are therefore called "Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology".
To be able to attend an university, a student must have finished a "Gymnasium" and own a graduation diploma. The study at an university usually lasts four and a half years.

The following universities are run by a canton:

  1. Universität Basel (BS)
  2. Universität Bern (BE)
  3. Universität Fribourg (FR)
  4. Universität Genf (GE)
  5. Université de Lausanne (VD)
  6. Université de Neuchâtel (NE)
  7. Universität St. Gallen (SG)
  8. L'Università della Svizzera italiana (TI)
  9. Universität Zürich (ZH)

One of the technical universities run by the confederation is located in the German speaking part of Switzerland, the other in the French speaking part:

  1. Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ)
  2. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

The two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology mentioned above are currently adapting their education process to the so called "Bologna declaration", an attempt of the European universities to align their educational program to make it not only easier, but first of all possible for a student to change from one university in one country to another university in another country during his or her study.
The education is now broken up into two parts similar to the education in the USA:
- a bachelor study (three years)
- a masters study (one and a half or two years)
After a successful completion of the masters study, one can start working on a thesis in order to get a doctor title. This takes usually three to four years.


2.6 "Fachhochschulen" (University of Applied Sciences):

After an apprenticeship, a young person can still start an academic career. Depending on the profession, she or he may attend a "Fachhochschule" (university of applied sciences). A university of applied sciences provides a similar education as the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology but not to the same extend. While an engineer ETH (graduate of one of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology) has a stronger theoretical background, an engineer FH (graduate of one of the university of applied sciences) usually has more practical experiences because she or he had finished an apprenticeship which lasted four years. The study lasts three and a half years.

As an alternative to a full-time study, an employee may also attend a so called "Abendtechnikum" (evening college). She or he continues to work, but attends school at night and on Saturdays. Some employers allow students either to do some homework at the office or provide some other easements. The evening college lasts six years.

"Fachhochschulen" (FH) (previously known as "Höhere Technische Lehranstalten" (HTL)) are often also referred to as "Ingenieurschule" (school for engineers) and are spread all over Switzerland. Recently, technical collages of most regions have started to join forces, some have even merged. Therefore, the list below is most likely neither complete nor perfectly correct:

For more complete and up-to-date information, please visit the "Website der EDK" (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education), which is also available in English.

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3. Education curriculum:

There are many different opportunities for a child to get an education. The curriculum below shows some of the most common pathways through the educational system. Of course, there are many other ways to get an education and there are other schools and possibilities especially in the area of continuing education.

"Erwerbsleben und Weiterbildung" (Businesslife and further education)
... go directly to ... "Abendtechnikum"
(Evening college)
(University of Applied Sciences)
(similar to secondary school)
(Short term secondary school, 4½ years)
(Long term secondary school, 6½ years)
(Elementary school 7th to 9th grade)
(Elementary school 1st to 6th grade)
(usually for kids at age 5 and 6)

For a more complete and up-to-date curriculum, please see the document The Swiss Education System, provided by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education.

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4. Education on the Internet:

In Switzerland, there are a number of activities on the Internet that are related to education:

  1. The Center for continuing education at the ETH Zürich provides up-to-date information about all the opportunities in continuing education at the ETH Zürich (Post-Graduate Studies, Post-Graduate Courses, Short Courses). Moreover, additional useful information and addresses are given.
  2. EducETH, the education Server of the ETH Zürich, provides a platform to exchange subject-matters and information for "Sekundarschulen"
  3. Schools goes Internet, the book for brave teachers by Dr. Louis Perrochon
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