The Swiss school where students study Dante in Florence and Flamenco in Seville

When we send our children to school, we expect that they'll learn how to read and write, to understand how the natural world works and how to measure things. Not as widely considered, but perhaps equally important, is the idea of ‘cultural capital’.

The Swiss school where students study Dante in Florence and Flamenco in Seville
Mark Aeschliman and students. Photo: TASIS

First coined by the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in 1977, the term refers to the understanding of shared societal and cultural knowledge that allows a person to navigate and rise within a society.

You might think of ‘cultural capital’ as the ability to use stories and symbols to communicate effectively; to convince, persuade and inspire. In an increasingly frenetic world, this skill is arguably more important than ever – as is well-recognised at The American School In Switzerland (TASIS).

A school that promotes cultural conversations

Since its foundation in 1956, the independent boarding and day school in the canton of Ticino has made encouraging the development of cultural capital in its students part of its mission. Mark Aeschliman, an Art History and Architecture teacher who has worked at the school for 42 years, sees the approach as a central part of TASISs ethos.

“The school has always been a haven, a kind of neutral ground where students’ cultural backgrounds possess a kind of equivalence,” he says. “Cultures, histories, and points of view are showcased on a daily basis.”

As well as being a place of curriculum-based classroom learning, this means the school also provides a great platform for discussion of “current events and cultural mores,” Aeschliman says.

Alex Secilmis, a recent graduate, agrees with Aeschliman as he reflects on the varied places around the world that the school has taken him. “I went to Seville to learn Spanish and their traditional dances, to Florence to better understand Dante’s Inferno, and to Nepal to witness a radically different way of life,” he says.

A school where beauty matters

The emphasis on improving the mind is also helped by the school’s physical environment. Perched on a hillside in Montagnola, it boasts impressive views of snow-capped mountains and Lake Lugano, as well as striking buildings.

As Aeschliman states: “The school’s setting in the centre of Europe, in neutral, safe Switzerland, most certainly has an impact on developing minds. One of the pillars of the school is ‘beauty’, and the beauty of the world is on full display daily among the pre-Alps above Lake Lugano. The school’s founders also made a commitment to commission only works of classical architecture for the school’s campus.”

Offering both the International Baccalaureate and the Advanced Placement program, the school also subscribes to the ideas of E.D. Hirsch, the American curriculum expert. Hirsch advocates for a greater focus on cultural literacy, not only examining the meanings behind the stories and symbols we share, but also their changing significance over time.

This cannot be done without engaging with the wider world on a regular basis. Aeschliman says this is “a school where the mantra is ‘Europe is our classroom’.”

Even in the physical classroom, students are able to boost their cultural capital through the Core Knowledge curriculum that stresses increased lesson time in social studies and history as a vital component. This guided program begins in Pre-Kindergarten and continues throughout Elementary School.

Download TASIS’s brochures for Elementary, Middle and High School or request further information –  or to arrange a visit to the campus or a video meeting click here

A school where you can dream ‘big’

This is not just a school that excels academically. As Secilmis tells us, teachers at the school support students in pursuing their deepest personal interests – sometimes going to surprising lengths.

“I worked in a program called ‘TASIS Student Films’,” he says. “The teachers were open enough to let me follow my interests and try out a broad range of styles. It was a hands-on experience with the help of a great team, and in my last year I went ahead and made a feature-length comedy with a cast of 40 students and teachers. 

Creating together: Mark Aeschliman and a student. Photo: TASIS

“The initiative was my own, but TASIS gave me a great platform. The curriculum is eclectic so that you can really challenge yourself academically, whether that’s aiming for a certain university or just figuring out what your passions are.” Secilmis is now studying fillm theory at King’s College London.

Any student graduating from TASIS can expect to gain admission to a quality university in the US or Europe – including, in some cases, the world’s most selective institutions. Top performers include students interested in business careers, as well as cultural pursuits.

The school’s 2020 valedictorian, Giulia Meregalli, is studying Finance at the University of Cambridge and has already begun a career in management consultancy and strategy. 

“I’ll miss the ability to relate and build connections with people from all over the world – and being part of such an international student body,” she says. “I’ll also miss the at-home feeling that I knew at TASIS, feeling as stable, at ease, and comfortable as I would at home.”

A school where you experience the world

TASIS was the first American boarding school in Europe. Today the student body comprises 60 nationalities and 42 spoken languages. Students from all around the world get to take part in all kinds of international festivals throughout the year: major American festivals such as Thanksgiving, local festivals, and those celebrated by the various nationalities of the students.

Students are constantly reminded that they are part of a greater whole, of a world that can be understood and celebrated. In a world as unpredictable as we’ve experienced this year, the ability to relate to and understand people from all backgrounds will help the new generation flourish and thrive. In this respect, it seems that TASIS succeeds admirably by helping students develop ‘cultural capital’ – and much more besides.

Interested in learning more about TASIS? To arrange a visit to the campus or a video meeting with the admissions team, click here. For more information about applying to TASIS, click here. And to learn about the TASIS Summer Programs, click here.

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5 things you never knew about Switzerland’s school system

From different types of schools to competitive apprenticeships and lots of languages, here are 5 lesser-known facts about Switzerland’s education system that might surprise you.

5 things you never knew about Switzerland's school system

A second local language is a must

Switzerland’s education system reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity that defines the country. Depending on the region, however, the language of instruction varies from German (not Swiss German!), French, Italian to Romansh.  English – considered Switzerland unofficial fifth language – is taught in primary schools while an additional national language is gradually introduced throughout the pupils’ education. In some schools, students also have the option of choosing to learn a third national language.

While not the norm across Switzerland, some cantonal schools teach bilingual or immersive classes, meaning one or several subjects are taught in a foreign language (bilingual). If lessons are carried out entirely or mainly in a foreign language, this is usually referred to as immersive lessons.

In the German-speaking part of Bern, for instance, children are taught in German and French in some kindergartens and primary schools. The same is also the case for the French-speaking part of Fribourg as well as the cantons Neuchâtel and Valais. 

In the canton of Graubünden pupils are either taught in a combination of Romansh and German, or Italian and German. Meanwhile, the canton of Solothurn teaches history and geography in French, while the canton of Schwyz educates pupils in both English and German – and that’s only to name a few!

READ ALSO: How much do international schools cost in Switzerland?

Education system by canton

For parents choosing which Swiss canton to move to, it may be beneficial to consider your local canton’s schooling system and how it differs from its surrounding cantons.

A pupil at school.

A pupil at school. Illustration photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

In Switzerland, the cantons are responsible for the compulsory schooling and they are obliged to harmonise important goals and structures nationwide. Hence, the mandatory attendance duration for the many school stages varies on a cantonal level.

Here’s a look at mandatory primary school attendance: Ticino (5 years), Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden Basel Land, Basel Stadt, Bern, Glarus, Graubunden, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, Zurich (6 years), and Fribourg, Geneva, Jura, Neuchatel, Valais, Vaud ( 8 years).

Mandatory middle school attendance: Appenzell Ausserrhoden (2 years), Ticino (4 years), all other cantons (3 years). 

Mandatory overall schooling period: Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Graubunden (9 years), Appenzell Innerrhoden, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Uri, Zug (10 years), and Aargau, Basel Land, Basel Stadt, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, Glarus, Jura, Neuchatel, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Ticino, Valais, Vaud, Zurich (11 years).

Bez, Sek or Realschule

Once a student has successfully completed their stint in primary school, they are on to their next adventure: the Oberstufenschule. But while some pupils may very well look forward to being just that bit closer to teenagehood, they could be surprised to discover that they may not be joining their fellow classmates in that next chapter.

In Switzerland, the higher primary education is made up of three types of schools whose curricula are coordinated with one another: the Bezirksschule, Sekundarschule and Realschule. Where a pupil ends up depends on their learning speed, grades, and abstract thinking ability as each school teaches children according to their abilities.

In the Realschule, students acquire a broad general education and the basis needed for an apprenticeship. The graduates of the Realschule often move on to apprenticeships in a trade or in the industry.

READ ALSO: How Swiss teachers are taking on ChatGPT

Students of the Sekundarschule, which sits in the middle of the three schools, acquire a broad general education and the skills needed for a more demanding professional training. Though many Sekundarschule graduates go on to take up various apprenticeships, ranging from commercial diplomas to the field of IT, some with exceptional grades choose to attend specialised middle schools.

The Bezirkschule has the highest demands among the three and prepares its pupils for both vocational training as well as a range of for secondary schools. In view of their further education, the students therefore have to choose from a number of elective and optional subjects in addition to attending compulsory classes. A good half of the graduates start an apprenticeship in trades, industry and commerce, the rest attend a baccalaureate or technical school.

Side note: In some cantons, the names for the three schools can fall in a different order.

A classroom.

Chairs in a classroom. Photo by Jonas Augustin on Unsplash

Apprenticeships favoured over university

Given the fact that only the Bezirkschule enables students to move on to the gymnasium in preparation for university, it is not surprising that the majority of Swiss pupils opt for apprenticeships instead. Though this could also have to do with the fact that apprenticeships in Switzerland – which last three to four years on average – generally pay a decent wage, and what teenager doesn’t look forward to their very first pay!

In order to find an apprenticeship, however, students must carry out a range of preparatory tasks, such as completing professional and general aptitude tests, attending information events, job fairs, trial apprenticeships and of course put together their application. 

In Switzerland, each Swiss canton has a list of employers with apprenticeship openings for the coming year as well as a booklet for primary school graduates to work through to figure out just what career suits their interests the best. But despite a shortage of skilled workers in multiple fields, finding an apprenticeship in Switzerland is no easy task.

Alternatives encouraged

Having decided on an apprenticeship over higher education, pupils might find themselves struggling to beat the competition. This year, 80 percent of apprenticeships – starting in the late summer 2023 – have already hired trainees.

However, there’s no reason for panic. Should a pupil be unable to secure a trainee job, not have sufficient grades, or simply be unsure about what career path to pursue, there are many interesting alternatives to consider. One of the most straightforward choices is deciding on a 10th school year (10. Schuljahr).

The 10th grade, also known as vocational school, allows students to slowly integrate into their desired professional life. Students who choose this path will benefit from a so-called preparation school, which will either focus on preparing them for vocational training or a secondary school, while also supporting them in their search for an apprenticeship should that be their choice.

Alternatively, pupils can opt for an internship or traineeship to get to know a professional field and make contact with potential employers.

Some also choose to use the extra year to hone their language skills with many graduates heading abroad to work as an au pair or as study a language in a school.