Early childhood education and care is divided between childcare for children under four, and pre-school/the first learning cycle for children over four as part of compulsory education.
The term “childcare” is understood here to mean care for children under four on a regular basis outside their own family in a publicly or privately funded care establishment (formal care). Typically, these are child centre-based day-care facilities (called Kitas or Krippen). Home-based ECEC day families that are organised in an association or network is less common than child centre-based day-care facilities. The use of childcare is voluntary and at the discretion of parents, who pay a share of the costs. There is no legal guarantee to a place in childcare.
There are both state-run and private child centre-based day-care facilities. Employers can operate child day-care facilities for their employees’ children. Child day-care facilities have to be approved and are subject to supervision (see Überblick zur Situation der familienergänzenden Betreuung in den Kantonen). Their regulation and responsibility for them differ depending on the canton or commune. Child day-care facilities are the most heavily regulated of all the childcare services.
Around one third of households do not use childcare, either formally or informally (Federal Statistical Office, 2019). Indeed, informal care within the family by relatives, friends, acquaintances and paid private individuals (nannies, au pairs, babysitters) is very common in Switzerland: households that do not exclusively look after their children themselves most often fall back on the people around them, especially grandparents. Around one third of households do not use childcare, either formally or informally (FSO 2019). Informal childcare will not, however, be discussed further below.
In Switzerland, the cantons and communes are responsible for childcare for children under four. The majority of settings for the youngest children fall under the responsibility of the cantonal ministries of social affairs, while in some cantons they are under the responsibility of the cantonal ministry of education. On a intercantonal level, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Social Affairs (Konferenz der kantonalen Sozialdirektorinnen und Sozialdirektoren) assumes a coordinating role for the cantons. There are no binding educational guidelines in the field of childcare on a national level.
The most common situation across the cantons is that pre-school is part of compulsory education and lasts for two years. Pre-school belongs to the pre-primary level (ISCED 020). The beginning of compulsory education in most cantons starts at age 4.
In some Cantons, the situation differs. In a few cantons of German-speaking Switzerland, there is no obligation to send children to pre-school, or only an obligation to send them for one year, but even in these cases the vast majority of children still attend pre-school for two years. In a few German-speaking cantons the communes can operate a form of the first learning cycle called a Grundstufe or Basisstufe. In this organisational form, four to seven or eight-year-old children are taught together in the same class. In the Basisstufe the two pre-school years are combined with the first two years of primary school, while in the Grundstufe the two pre-school years are combined with the first year of primary school. In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the two years of pre-school are part of the cycle 1 or cycle primaire 1, which lasts four years. In the canton of Ticino, in addition to the two compulsory pre-school years, a further optional year is offered for children from the age of three.
Attendance of pre-school or the first learning cycle is free of charge. The educational administrations of the cantons are responsible for pre-school, or the first learning cycle, and regulate them in the cantonal education acts. The communes are responsible for operating them. The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education assumes a coordinating role. Binding language-regional curricula exist for pre-school or the first learning cycle (German and multilingual cantons: Lehrplan 21, French-speaking cantons: Plan d’étude romand PER, Ticino: Piano di Studio).