As a rule, children attend school in the commune in which they live. Small communes may create schools with multi-age classes. In these schools, pupils from different school years are taught together in the same class. Small communes can amalgamate their schools or send children to a school in another commune. The communes organise transport facilities. The costs are paid by the commune and/or canton.
Admission requirements and choice of school
Primary level – including two years of pre-school or the first two years of a first learning cycle – lasts eight years in most cantons. Children who have reached the eligible age by the specified cut-off date (Stichtag, this is usually 31 July) start the primary level at the beginning of the school year (autumn). The children are usually between four and five years old (see also the information given in chapter 4.4).
The time that the children need to pass through the first years of school depends on their intellectual development and emotional maturity. Where appropriate, the children are also given additional support through special measures. In the German-speaking cantons, an assessment is usually made at the end of the two-year pre-school as to whether a child should transition to the third school year or attend another year of pre-school. In some German-speaking cantons, children who are only ready for some aspects of school may attend a two-year preparatory Einschulungsklasse or Einführungsklasse (see below). In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, this assessment usually takes place at the end of the four-year cycle 1 or cycle primaire 1.
Teachers, parents and in some cases school psychologists or school medical services are all involved in the decision-making process (Übertritt: Instanzen, Entscheid, Übertrittskriterien). The decision is based on the child’s age and development stage. Parents may request that their child enter the third school year earlier or later. The transition procedure is regulated by the cantons. In practically all cantons, the school supervisory authorities or school administration make the final decision.
Choice of school
In compulsory education parents cannot choose which state school their child attends. Children have to attend the school serving the area where they live. The competent school authorities may grant exemptions if, for instance, local conditions make the route to school too long. Popular initiatives on the freedom to choose schools in various cantons have not been successful to date.
Age levels and grouping of pupils
At primary level classes are not streamed according to pupil ability. Children at different development stages and with different learning abilities attend the same class. Children aged between six and twelve attend lessons in classes grouped by age. Multi-age classes are held in sparsely populated areas with small pupil numbers.
Teachers with a generalist training background teach all or most subjects, or several subject-group teachers teach specific subject areas. The class teacher is responsible for the class. One teacher usually accompanies the same class for two years. Additional specialist teachers may be employed for remedial teaching and for teaching children with special needs.
The cantons lay down minimum, maximum and/or guideline levels for class sizes (Klassengrössen). The communes are responsible for dividing up classes depending on class sizes.
Grundstufe and Basisstufe
There are schools which combine the pre-school years with the first school years. Children of different ages attend the same class and receive differentiated teaching from teachers through “team teaching”. The Grundstufe and Basisstufe are two variants of a first learning cycle. The cantons are responsible for regulating the introduction of the first learning cycle.
Einschulungsklassen or Einführungsklassen
In some German-speaking cantons children who are only ready for some aspects of school may attend a two-year preparatory Einschulungsklasse or Einführungsklasse after pre-school in which the learning matter normally covered in the first regular primary class is spread over two years. At the end of the two-year preparatory Einschulungsklasse or Einführungsklasse pupils usually transfer definitively to the second regular primary class.
Organisation of the school year
The school year starts in autumn ‒ between the middle of August and the middle of September depending on the canton. In most cantons the school year comprises a total of between 38 and 39 weeks of school (Unterrichtsdauer).
The cantons and their communes are responsible for deciding on school holidays in compulsory education (Ferienlisten). The lengths and times of holidays therefore differ between the cantons (and sometimes even within a canton). There are school holidays in summer and autumn, at Christmas, in February and in spring. The cantons are responsible for dividing the school year. The school year is usually split into two semesters.
Organisation of the school day and week
Weekly teaching periods per subject and class
The cantons specify the weekly teaching periods per subject and class (Stundentafeln) and decide on lesson length (Unterrichtsdauer). As a result, the annual teaching time and the weekly lesson times vary by canton. In the third and fourth school years there are generally 24-28 lessons per week, while from the fifth to eighth school years there are generally 28 to 32 lessons per week. The communes or the schools are responsible for their class timetables
Block teaching is a method of school organisation which combines lesson time into larger blocks of time (Blockzeiten). It makes it easier for working parents to organise childcare. Lessons are bundled together into full half-days. In “comprehensive” block teaching the pupils are in the care of the school on five mornings for at least three-and-a-half hours (i.e. four lessons) and on one to four afternoons. Depending on local conditions and needs different models of block teaching may be applied. At primary level, between 76% and 100% of schools offer comprehensive block teaching in almost all cantons.
Childcare (daycare centres for children)
The cantons and communes are responsible for regulating childcare. Compulsory education offers, among others, day-care centres, day nurseries, supervised midday meals (Mittagstisch), periods before and after lessons or supervised homework and other services (Andere Tagesstruktur-Angebote). Day nurseries and day-care centres (Tagesschulen) look after children and young people outside school lesson times (mornings, lunchtimes, afternoons) and also offer leisure activities, catering and support with school concerns. Parents can usually choose specific days and care times. Supervised midday meals (Mittagstisch) offer children and young people care at midday on agreed days of the week. These services are voluntary services for which parents normally have to pay.
The Intercantonal Agreement on Harmonisation of Compulsory Education (HarmoS Agreement) requires the cantons involved to give preference to block teaching at primary level and to provide a demand-oriented range of day-care centres during compulsory education.