Education system in Switzerland
Cantons have a large degree of autonomy in regards to their school systems. They choose the structure of their education system, the syllabus and the dates of holidays.
However, the structure of the Swiss education system is roughly the same in all cantons and includes three levels as detailed below as well as the terciary or high education level.
Compulsory education lasts for nine years and consists of primary and lower secondary education (secondary I). Primary education lasts from four to six years depending on the Canton. Lower secondary education lasts from three to five years depending on the Canton. Upper secondary education (secondary II) is not compulsory and varies in length from three to four years. There are two main types of upper secondary schools: academic schools (Maturitätsschulen) and vocational schools (Berufsfachschulen). Academic upper secondary schools prepare students for entry to Universities and Teacher Training Schools; vocational secondary schools prepare students for a wide range of occupations and Higher Vocational Schools (Höhere Fachschulen) as well as Universities of Applied Sciences (if combined with the Professional Baccalaureate).
Structure of the Swiss education system
Vorschulstufe: Preschool education is not considered as a formal stage of education, the majority of children (95%) attend kindergarten (école enfantine/ jardin d’enfant/ Scuola dell’infanzia) for two years before starting primary school. usually, at four years old. In some cantons, such as Zürich and Geneva, the last year of preschool is compulsory attendance.
Primarstufe: Primary education is compulsory for all children over six years of age and their duration (between 4 and 6 years) vary according to the canton. The schools (Primarschule, école primaire/ scuola primaria o elementare) are mixed and the classes are taught in a single language that, in general, matches that spoken in the homes. Students attend 28 hours in addition to going to class in the afternoon. Usually, on Wednesday afternoons there is no class.
In 6th grade, the last year of primary school, at around age 11–12 years of age, depending on which canton in Switzerland the child goes to school in, there could be a screening exam to decide how to separate the students for secondary school. The preparatory courses for the entrance exam to the Gymnasium begin in August and until October. These courses involve two extra hours of class per week attended by students who voluntarily want to take the exam, which is usually held in the second week of March. If the students take the exam in 6th grade of primary education and achieve access to the Gymnasium, they will take the “long” Gymnasium that lasts for 6 years and provides the highest education that can be taken. The passage to the University or other higher education is practically guaranteed.
Those who cannot pass in Primary have access to the corresponding Secondary level and continue to try to access the Gymnasium in 2nd or 3rd Secondary. If they succeed, they “re-engage” to a “short” Gymnasium that lasts 4 years and that will also allow them to access higher education.
Sekundarstufe: Secondary compulsory education (usually from 12 years old). After primary education, students are separated according to the type of careers they want. They can choose between an academically- or a vocationally-oriented school. Academically-oriented students enter high school (Gymnasium or Kantonsschule), and take a Matura (high school diploma) examination at the end. The Matura is necessary for university entrance. Vocational courses lead to a vocational diploma.
High schools are divided between lower secondary and upper secondary. Lower secondary education lasts from three to five years depending on the Canton. Upper secondary education (secondary II) is not compulsory and varies in length from three to four years.
In lower secondary (Sekundarstufe I), children study different subjects: their national language (German, French, Italian or Romansh), two foreign languages (generally English and German, French or Italian), mathematics, natural sciences, geography, history and civic education, economics, arts, music and sport. Children also receive career guidance and vocational preparation.
At the end of lower secondary, children begin to choose what they want to study (either academically or vocationally). Certificate/diploma awarded: In some cantons “lower secondary shool leaving certificate”.
In the upper secondary level there are two main types of upper secondary schools: academic schools (Maturitätsschulen) and vocational schools (Berufsfachschulen). Academic upper secondary schools prepare students for entry to Universities and Teacher Training Schools; vocational secondary schools prepare students for a wide range of occupations and Higher Vocational Schools (Höhere Fachschulen) as well as Universities of Applied Sciences (if combined with the Professional Baccalaureate).
During upper secondary school (Sekundarstufe II), students who follow an academic curriculum will have the choice between several specialized Matura schools. Type of school providing this education: Academic upper secondary school/Maturitätsschule (Secondary II). Six different school types are available: Math and Science (Matematisches und Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium), Modern languages (Neusprachliches Gymnasium), Classical languages (Altsprachliches Gymnasium), Secondary School of Economics (Wirtschaftsgymnasium), Secondary Music and Art school (Musisches Gymnasium) and Secondary School of Sports (Sportgymnasium). At 18 or 19 years old, students can take the Matura exam. If they receive a Matura diploma, they are eligible for university. Certificate/diploma awarded: Maturitaetszeugnis/Certificat de Maturité/Baccalauréat/Attestato di Maturità
Students can also enter a vocational school (Berufslehre) for their upper secondary education. Type of school providing this education: Vocational matura school/Berufsmaturitätsschule (Secondary II). To enter a vocational school, they usually have to pass an entry exam. Certificate/diploma awarded: Professional Baccalaureate/Vocational Secondary
At the end of vocational school, students often continue their studies at a Fachhochschule (technical schools) or a Höhere Fachschule (vocational school).
Tertiärstufe: Terciary education is of high quality. It covers universities and higher vocational training. Switzerland has universities providing general education and universities of applied sciences. Higher vocational training is provided by higher technical schools, leading to vocational certificates and higher vocational diplomas.
The different universities usually dictate their courses in a single language and are governed by the following model: