EXPLAINED: What every parent needs to know about the Swiss school system

If you’re an academic professional with a family in Switzerland, the range of options in education can seem bewildering.

EXPLAINED: What every parent needs to know about the Swiss school system
Pic: Getty/mediaphotos

Together with Robin Hull of Hull’s School, Zürich, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of some of the curricula on offer to international parents. We also introduce his new book, that acts as a useful ‘road map’ to education in Switzerland.

As parents, we all want the best for our children, and central to their success is the right choice of school. In the previous two decades, an increasing number of parents have moved to Switzerland with their children. In response, many educational institutions have emerged to educate these students.

We also want to give our children access to the widest range of opportunities in regards to further education. Unfortunately, this is where Switzerland has not managed to catch up in terms of range and flexibility. Therefore, it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different curricula.

Purchase ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ today, and take control of your children’s future academic success

The Maturitätszeugnis is perhaps the broadest university entrance examination in Europe with mandatory advanced Algebra, three languages, all sciences, history, geography, music art and physical education. However, there is very little room for specialisation in the final two years, given the number of subjects that students have to take until the very end. While it may be an excellent route to studying in Switzerland, it may be less ideal for the rest of Europe and particularly the leading Russell Group universities of the UK.

The International Baccalaureate is one of the most high profile options for ‘international’ high school students. It has a widely recognized curriculum, with the mandatory Theory of Knowledge subject seen as an excellent preparation for tertiary students. The ‘IB’ is well recognized by European and English universities, but is seen as tougher on youngsters who are not natural ‘all-rounders’, especially when it comes to mathematical knowledge. Like the Maturitätszeugnis, it is considered to have impressive breadth, but less flexibility and depth than A-levels.

The IGCSE / A-levels may not have the local profile of the Maturitätszeugnis or the International Baccalaureate. However, it is a very strong tool for entry into UK Russell Group universities, who expect a high level of depth and specialisation, and is consistently accepted throughout Switzerland, Europe and the USA. Together with the IB, it is widely understood to be the world’s best established university entrance qualification.

Bewildered by the range of curricula on offer in Switzerland? Purchase ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ today to understand what’s on offer

While this is only the broadest of overviews, a new book, ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ by Robin Hull, is the first comprehensive, detailed guide to the school curricula available within Switzerland. It is ideal for those parents and students who want to understand where their schooling choices will take them.

Robin Hull is the Principal of Hull’s School in Zurich, Switzerland’s first English-language sixth form college offering IGCSE A-Levels. Under the guidance and experience of Hull, the school has become a centre of excellence in education, sending students to universities all over the world.

If you have children approaching their secondary schooling, it’s important that you take the time to understand how the choices you and your children make will dictate their academic future. ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ by Robin Hull is a powerful tool of intervention, to ensure that your children are placed on the right track for their future studies.

Purchase ‘A guide to the Swiss educational system’ today, and ensure that your child is primed for academic success

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EXPLAINED: What are the rules for homeschooling children in Switzerland?

Homeschooling is not completely banned in Switzerland, but it is heavily regulated. Here’s what you need to know.

Children work through their studies at home
Homeschooling is not banned nationwide in Switzerland, but it is heavily regulated - while some cantons outlaw it completely. Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

The debate surrounding homeschooling in Switzerland – as with elsewhere in Europe – has been particularly fraught in recent years. 

Due to geographical problems accessing schools or the special needs of a child – as well as other practical and ideological differences –  parents have sometimes seen homeschooling as an alternative. 

One reason provided by foreign parents is a desire to teach their child in their own language. 

For parents from other parts of the world, particularly English-speaking countries, they are used to rules for home schooling children which are relatively relaxed. 

It can then be surprising when people arrive in Switzerland to find that home school can be either outright banned, or heavily restricted. 

This may be less of a practical problem in Switzerland in comparison to the United States or Australia, where distances are small, but for some parents it may be an ideological issue where they would prefer to homeschool their children rather than have this done at an educational institution. 

As with pretty much everything in Switzerland, if and how you can homeschool your kids will depend on the rules in place in your canton. 

Keep in mind that this guide refers to children who are being sent to school at home on a permanent basis, not children who are being taught at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What are the rules at a federal level? 

Education for children is compulsory in Switzerland. 

However, the federal government leaves it up to the cantons to regulate the manner in which schooling is carried out – including homeschooling. 

A court case from 2019 sought to assert a right to homeschooling under the Swiss constitution, but this was dismissed. 

The Swiss Federal Court handed down a ruling which upheld the rights of cantons to restrict or even ban homeschooling. 

The court effectively said Swiss residents do not have a constitutional right to homeschool their children, allowing cantons the legislative power to decide upon whether or not it should be restricted. 

The case concerned a mother who wanted to homeschool her child in the city of Basel, where homeschooling is only permitted if the parent can show that school attendance is impossible. 

The Swiss constitution guarantees a right to privacy and family life, but the court said that this did not extend to homeschooling. 

What are the cantonal rules? 

Homeschooling is permitted to some degree in 16 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. 

It is completely banned in Ticino, while in others such as St Gallen and Zurich although it is allowed, getting permission to homeschool is seen as “virtually impossible”.

While getting up-to-date figures is difficult due to data privacy issues, around 140 children are homeschooled in Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous canton. 

In Lucerne, Valais, Freibourg, Zug and Schwyz there is a requirement that parents who homeschool are accredited as teachers, while Bern and Aargau allow homeschooling teachers to operate without an accreditation.

In Basel City, parents must show that school attendance is impossible – which is particularly different in the tiny canton (at least with a geographical argument). 

In the above case, the mother’s argument that the authorities were not doing enough for her gifted son was unsuccessful in court. 

According to Swissinfo, in 2019 no children were being homeschooled in Basel. 

Homeschooling is more popular in the French-speaking part of the country. 

Of the 1,000 children who are homeschooled in Switzerland, approximately 600 of them are in the canton of Vaud. 

Vaud and neighbour Neuchâtel are considered to be one of the most permissive of homeschooling in Switzerland. In these cantons, you only need to alert the authorities if you plan on homeschooling your children – although there have been recent signs this will be further restricted in future. 

Why is homeschooling banned?

Although in many English-speaking cultures homeschooling is common place, it is frequently restricted or banned throughout Europe.

While it is constitutionally guaranteed in Italy and Ireland, other countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden ban the practice. 

Common justifications for banning homeschooling include a need to ensure children receive the same moral and ideological foundation, a desire to ensure school attendance, a lack of social skills among homeschooled children and concerns about the standard of education.

Is this likely to change? 

There are some advocacy groups which have spent considerable resources and time pushing for more relaxed home schooling rules in Switzerland, some of which are run by internationals who want their children’s education to look a little more familiar to what they know. 

There are several federal and cantonal advocacy organisations for homeschooling which can be found online. 

However, given how slowly things happen in Switzerland – and the fact that the major advocates of homeschooling tend to be foreigners rather than Swiss – means that any widespread changes are unlikely anytime soon.